Is Robert Harris' new novel a portrait of Tony Blair?

The British scene.
Oct. 3 2007 7:24 AM

The Ghost and Mr. Blair

Is Robert Harris' new novel a portrait of Tony Blair?

Tony Blair. Click image to expand.
Tony Blair

Any novel that can push everyday politics off the news pages is both unusual and welcome, but if the book is itself a political novel, it may belong there. The Ghost, by Robert Harris, is a political novel and a half, by an author whose first career was writing about politics before he turned to popular fiction.          

Having made an international reputation and a small fortune from his 20th-century what-if novels Fatherlandand Archangel(dealing with Hitler and Stalin, respectively), Harris has recently written two historical novels set in Roman antiquity, Pompeii and Imperium. Although the latter was the first volume of a trilogy, Harris' latest book is entirely contemporary.

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In the novel, a recently retired British prime minister hires a ghostwriter—the nameless narrator of the title—to turn his dreary memoirs into something publishable. This politician, Adam Lang, is a slick performer, but things went awry when he took his country into a disastrous Middle Eastern war, and he is now being denounced as a war criminal. He has a clever, domineering wife and an attentive, beautiful assistant, who turns out to be providing more than merely professional services.

All of which has lit a media firestorm in London, since everyone believes The Ghost to be a transparent roman à clef about the author's one-time friend Tony Blair. "A deposed PM, a pushy wife and his very devoted aide," nudged a Daily Mail headline. "Affairs of state," winked the Sunday Times. "The former PM in his new novel is strikingly similar to our ex-leader," observed the Independent lugubriously.

Naturally enough, Harris has denied that the book is a portrait of Blair, and he takes particular pains to insist that the affair between Lang and his aide is complete fiction. When Anji Hunter, Blair's friend since their teens and his close assistant for years at Downing Street, was asked to comment, she said, "I've not heard of Robert Harris or any of his books."

Some of us have not only heard of Harris but have followed the relationship between him and Blair for years, and a riveting real-life tale it is, of friendship, enthusiasm, and disillusionment. By way of disclosure, I should say that Harris is a friend of mine. I can claim no part in midwifing The Ghost, except that we lunch regularly at a pub in Wiltshire to rest from our labors, contemplate the passing scene, and comment sardonically on the politicians and writers of the age. I have thus observed his changing attitude to Blair at close quarters, but no inside information is needed to tell this story. All that's most fascinating can be found from what Harris has said publicly, and it is all the more telling because he personifies a whole generation's loss of faith in Blair.

The two men are near contemporaries, Blair 54 and Harris 50. Blair was the son of a self-made lawyer, educated privately in Edinburgh and at Oxford, Harris the son of a self-taught printer, educated at a public high school in Leicestershire and at Cambridge. Blair trained as a barrister, entered parliament in 1983, became Labor Party leader in 1994, won a landslide general election in 1997, and the rest you know.

It wouldn't have been at all surprising if Harris had also gone into politics, but instead he became a journalist. He spent some years as a reporter with the BBC (that's when the photograph of him with Ronald Reagan that hangs, in the English fashion, in his downstairs loo was taken). He wrote for one Sunday newspaper, the Observer, and then moved to another, the Sunday Times, as its highest-paid columnist.

Shortly before the 1992 election, an aide of Blair's called Harris to suggest a lunch. The two men discovered an affinity: Harris was depressed by Tory dominance after three election victories—soon to become four—and he saw Blair as the man who might rescue Labor. Two years later, after the Tory government had suffered a drastic loss of authority in the wake of a financial crisis, Labor leader John Smith died suddenly and was succeeded by Blair.

By that time, Harris had enjoyed a runaway success with Fatherland, followed by four more best sellers. He dropped out of journalism for a while, but he still kept up a running commentary on Blair's ascent. In 1997, Blair handpicked Harris as a sympathetic chronicler to accompany him in cars and planes on his triumphal campaign. (Harris told me afterward that, with all this unique and enviable access, he had never covered an election where he knew less about what was actually going on. The place to learn that nowadays is sitting at home in front of the television.)

Although Harris never joined the ranks of those who sycophantically praised Blair—and in some cases later venomously damned him—he did see him as an outstanding figure who could change the country. "These are revolutionary times," he wrote in 1997, a phrase I genially mocked in print, since it described exactly what they weren't. And yet at an early stage he was also perceptive about Blair's dangerous gift for being all things to all people and saying different things to different audiences. With a novelist's unconscious sense of dramatic irony, one might say, he wrote, more than 10 years ago, "Which of us, I wonder, will be the first to be disappointed?"

A twist in this particular plot was that Harris and his wife, Gill Hornby (whose brother Nick is one more best-selling author), are old friends of Peter Mandelson's, who is godfather to one of their four children. After adroitly switching sides from supporting Gordon Brown for the party leadership, Mandelson became Blair's consigliere; he joined the Cabinet after the election but was forced to resign, not once but twice.

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