Tony Blair's book reads like a long memo to his staff
I pity the hapless book buyer who dips into the introduction to Tony Blair's memoir and forks out £25 on the strength of what is in the opening paragraph, because crashing disappointment must inevitably follow.
The former PM declares that this is not a "traditional political memoir" because "most such memoirs are, I have found, rather easy to put down... there is only one person, who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that's me".
No one could argue with that. But it is the promise that Mr Blair makes to his readers of "a personal account, a description of a journey through a certain period of history" which – to judge from the extracts released last night – must be considered a gross breach of the Trade Descriptions Act.
The book has virtues, of which the greatest is that he has evidently striven to be honest. One of the most frequent accusations thrown at Mr Blair is that, in office, he bent the truth to suit his political purposes. In an indirect way, he admits that this was so.
"Politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand it be done," he wrote. "And don't get too offended by it; we all make these decisions every day in our business and personal lives."
There is also the absence of private malice. We know from other sources such as Alastair Campbell's diaries that Mr Blair's relations with his popular Northern Ireland Secretary, the late Mo Mowlam, descended from poor to disastrous, but there was no mention of this in the extract from the chapter on Northern Ireland posted on the web last night. He simply includes her alongside Peter Mandelson and others in a list of secretaries of state who served under him, claiming that they were all good appointments.
He has even found words to praise Clare Short, who stormed out of his cabinet and out of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and six months ago told the Chilcot Inquiry that Mr Blair had "misled" the cabinet over Iraq and was "obsessed with his legacy".
Though she "could be very bitter", Mr Blair wrote, "she had real leadership talent" and Labour should be proud of what she achieved as International Development Secretary.
More striking still, perhaps, is the absence of self-pity and self-justification, given that what we have here is the memoir of a politician who has attracted more criticism and more bile than almost any other living Briton.
In the published extract on Iraq, Mr Blair sets himself the unambitious aim not of converting anyone who opposed the war, but of persuading those prepared to hear him out that there is at least a case in his defence worth considering. It is a detailed passage which he seems to have written without help from anyone, because it contains a curious error which any half-competent researcher would have noticed.
He mentions "a son-in-law" of Saddam Hussein who fell out with the dictator in 1996, fled abroad, exposed the Iraqi government's interest in developing weapons of mass destruction, and then went back to Iraq, where he was shot dead. Actually, there were two sons-in-law, not one, who defected and then returned and were murdered.
These qualities will reassure anyone using the memoirs for historical research, but they do not make for compelling reading. These extracts are less like a "description of a journey" and more like a long memo to Mr Blair's staff, setting out their boss's decisions and reasoning.
Compared with these extracts, the recent memoir by Lord Mandelson is downright racy. The Northern Ireland extract, for example, is made up of Tony Blair's top tips, numbered from one to 10, for anyone mediating a religious or ethnic conflict.
Even the brief flashes of personal reminiscence are too bare to command attention. Here, for example, is an intimate moment he shared with the Rev Ian Paisley: "Once, near the end, he asked me whether I thought God wanted him to make the deal that would seal the peace process. I wanted to say yes, but I hesitated. Though I was sure God would want peace, God is not a negotiator. I felt it would be wrong, manipulative to say yes, and so I said I couldn't answer that question."
There it is – one of the world's most famous and fierce anti-papist preachers seeks advice on what God thinks from a politician who is married to a Catholic and at the time was suspected of being a covert Catholic himself.
That is all Tony Blair has to say about that peculiar moment. If this is his idea of a "personal" account, one must wonder what he is like when he is being impersonal.