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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
The Tony Blair story
Tony Blair

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Tony Blair has always stood out from the crowd.

At school he drove his teachers to distraction, constantly questioning their authority. At university, he acted out his rock star fantasies as the lead singer of a band.

Few at that stage would have predicted a career in the sober world of politics, even though Blair's charisma and ability to charm people were evident from an early age.

Tony Blair at Fettes School 1969
Blair was known as a cheeky, argumentative schoolboy

The story of his rise to power is certainly not a rags to riches tale - he was born with every advantage in life - but it is no less remarkable for that.

It is the story of how a middle class, privately-educated barrister - the son of a would-be Tory MP - went on to become the most successful leader in the history of the Labour Party, profoundly changing it and the country in the process.

And how a man once seen as a lightweight - preoccupied with his own image and popularity - became one of the most powerful and controversial figures on the world stage.

Tory leanings

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was born in 1953 in Edinburgh, the second son of Hazel and Leo Blair.

Tony Blair at Oxford
The student Tony Blair had a rebellious streak

He spent the first few years of his life in Adelaide, Australia, where Leo lectured in law at the city's university.

They returned to the UK in late 1950s and Blair spent the remainder of his childhood in Durham, where he was a day pupil at the fee-paying Choristers School.

Leo was chairman of the local Conservative association but had to abandon his ambition to become a Tory MP when he suffered a stroke.

His political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.

'Maddening'

Blair's teachers at exclusive Edinburgh boarding school Fettes recall a cheeky, rebellious figure; a talented actor who loved being the centre of attention and who cultivated a "cool" image among his peers.

BLAIR'S CV
Tony Blair
Born: 6 May 1953
Educated: Choristers school, Fettes, Oxford
Family: Married, four children
1976: Barrister specialising in trade union and employment law
1983: Labour MP for Sedgefield, shadow City spokesman
1984 - 87: shadow trade and industry minister
1987 - 88: Shadow energy secretary
1989 - 92: Shadow employment secretary
1992 - 94: Shadow home secretary
1994 - 97: Opposition leader
1997 - Prime minister

"Tony was full of life. Maddening at times, full of himself and very argumentative," Blair's housemaster Eric Anderson told Blair's biographer John Rentoul.

"He was an expert at testing the rules to the limit, and I wouldn't swear that he stuck rigidly to the rules on not drinking, smoking or breaking bounds. But he was a live wire and fun to have around."

At the age of 17 he was given "six of the best" for persistently flouting the school rules. Then he was threatened with expulsion.

It was his girlfriend's father, Lord Mackenzie Stewart, an Old Fettesian and cross bench peer, who came to the rescue, striking a deal with the school that allowed Blair to spend the final few weeks of the summer term living with him.

Mackenzie Stewart's daughter, Amanda, was the first girl to be admitted to Fettes. Typically, it was the super-confident Blair who beat the 440 other boys to win her heart.

Rock music

Blair also met Charlie Falconer while at Fettes. The man who would later become his Lord Chancellor was a pupil at the rival Edinburgh Academy.

Blair left Fettes with three A levels and a place at St John's College, Oxford, to study law.

Tony Blair and Michael Foot in 1983
The young barrister impressed Michael Foot with his enthusiasm
Like many teenage boys in the late 1960s he was besotted by rock music. He idolised Mick Jagger but he also dreamed of wielding power behind the scenes, as a manager or promoter.

Before taking up his place at Oxford, he headed for London, where he spent a carefree year "managing" student rock bands and putting on gigs and discos with his friend Alan Collenette.

To make ends meet, the pair stacked shelves at Barkers food hall, in Kensington.

At Oxford he briefly fronted a rock band, Ugly Rumours. Friends recall his charismatic stage presence, but also his professional attitude.

Trainee barrister

"He even wanted to rehearse," said band mate Mark Ellen.

But Blair was also developing a more thoughtful side. He began to talk about left wing politics and, unusually for the times, became increasingly serious about his Christian faith, taking confirmation classes.

He lost his mother to cancer while he was at Oxford, which also appears to have profoundly affected his outlook.

In his first year at the university, he befriended an Australian priest, Peter Thompson, with whom he would debate social issues and theology late into the night. Blair later credited Thompson with awakening in him an interest in Christian socialism, and a desire for social change.

How Tony Blair has aged during 10 years in office

Blair was also unusual, in the pot-smoking student milieu of the early 1970s, in that he appears to have avoided drugs. There are also few reports of him being incapacitated by drink.

His only real vice was smoking cigarettes, a habit wife Cherie later made him quit. He smoked his last one 15 minutes before their wedding.

Blair left Oxford with a second class degree and in 1976 became a trainee barrister in the chambers of Derry Irvine, who would later become his first Lord Chancellor.

It was here that he met Cherie Booth, a fellow pupil in Irvine's chambers. She had a first class degree and was seen as being more of a high flyer than Blair.

Activist

Friends recall a Christmas party, during a game which involved passing a balloon between their knees, when it became obvious they would be more than just colleagues.

BLAIR PROPERTIES
Connaught Square
1980: Mapledene Road, Hackney, bought 40,000, sold 1986 80,000
1983: Myrobella, Trimdon village, nr Sedgefield, bought 30,000
1986: Stavordale Road, Islington, bought 120,000, sold 1993 200,000
1993: Richmond Crescent, Islington, bought 375,000, sold 1997 615,000
1997: 11 Downing Street - rent free flat next door to prime minister's traditional residence
2002: Clifton, Bristol, two flats bought for 525,000 in total
2004: Connaught Square, Bayswater, bought 3.6m
2007: Bayswater. Two bed house behind Connaught square property, bought 800,000. Blairs plan to join buildings together to create extra space

"The next day we went out to lunch and hours later we were still there," Blair later recalled.

"I found her immensely physically attractive and I wanted her as a friend as well."

The couple married in 1980, setting up home in Hackney, east London, in a 40,000 end-of-terrace house, and threw themselves into local Labour Party politics.

Blair had joined the party shortly after leaving Oxford, but it was only now that he became more involved as an activist, encouraged by neighbour - and future home secretary - Charles Clarke, who shared his centre-left outlook.

In 1981, through his father-in-law, the actor and left wing campaigner Tony Booth, Blair contacted Labour MP Tom Pendry to ask for help in becoming an MP.

Pendry gave him a tour of the Commons and advised him to stand for selection as a candidate in a forthcoming by-election in Beaconsfield.

Blair never stood a chance in such a safe Conservative seat but he managed to attract the attention of Labour leader Michael Foot, who was impressed by his enthusiasm and told him he had a "big future in politics".

Manifesto concerns

Nevertheless, it looked as if he would miss out on a chance to contest the 1983 general election.

It was only at the very last minute that he found a vacant seat, in the newly-created constituency of Sedgefield, near where he grew up in County Durham, securing the nomination ahead of several sitting MPs and his future Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, the daughter of a local Labour MP.

The 1983 Labour manifesto was one of the most left wing ever to be put before the British electorate. It included commitments to nationalisation of industry and unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Tony Blair at Labour conference 1997
Presentation was crucial to the New Labour project
Blair made it clear privately to John Burton, his election agent and mentor, that he did not agree with key parts of it, particularly proposals to withdraw Britain from the EU.

His victory, in a rock solid Labour area, was assured, although Labour had a bad night nationally.

The early 1980s was a grim era of factory closures and job losses in the North East of England, with unemployment in the former mining villages that made up most of Blair's constituency soaring above 20%.

Within weeks of entering Parliament, Blair, who at 30 was the youngest Labour MP, led a delegation of pit men and their families to London, where he joined forces with National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leader Arthur Scargill to petition the National Coal Board over the planned closure of a coke works.

Middle class appeal

The young "London barrister," as local newspapers described him, fought for his constituents' jobs in traditional heavy industries but he also made no effort to hide his belief that the Labour Party had to modernise - and broaden its appeal to middle class voters - or die.

In an article for The Northern Echo, he argued "to win power for the low-paid, unemployed and the North, we must also appeal to the 60% of the population in private housing, to the employed on the average wage and to the South".

BLAIR'S WEEKEND GUESTS
Tony Blair and Bono
Sting
Elton John
Bono
David Bowie
Bob Geldof
Mick Hucknall
Lord Attenborough
Joan Collins
Dame Judi Dench
Cilla Black
John Birt
Sir Richard Branson
Delia Smith
Stephen Fry
Kevin Keegan
Source: Downing Street list of guests at Chequers between 1997 and 2001

He soon learned this was not a message everyone in the Labour Party wanted to hear. At one party meeting, he was shocked to find himself being denounced as a "traitor to socialism" by Labour MP Dennis Skinner, after he made a speech urging reform.

"It was a very early lesson in politics because I said exactly what I thought. I said we were living in a new age but we were talking like everybody had just got black and white TVs," he later recalled in an interview with The Northern Echo.

Cherie had also contested the 1983 general election, but after losing the no-hope seat of Thanet in Kent, she threw herself into her legal career, going on to become one of the country's leading human rights lawyers.

By the end of Blair's first year in Parliament, she had also given birth to the first of the couple's four children, Euan.

That first year also saw Blair gain a crucial ally in his mission to modernise the Labour Party.

New agenda

Colleagues recall him being initially somewhat in awe of Gordon Brown, the young Scottish MP he shared an office with in Parliament.

BLAIR'S FAVOURITE FOOD
Tony Blair
Bananas, Beck's lager and pistachio nuts - maid who served Blair at Labour conference
Fresh fettucini garnished with an exotic sauce of olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and capers - NSPCC Islington Cook Book
Fish and chips - Sedgefield Labour Party election leaflet

Unlike him, Brown had been steeped in Labour politics from a very early age and already had a knack for making headlines.

But together with Peter Mandelson, then a senior aide to party leader Neil Kinnock, the pair set about laying the foundations for what would become New Labour.

Blair, Brown and Mandelson were determined to make Labour electable again by ditching unpopular Labour policies, such as unilateral disarmament, and forging a new agenda marrying free market economics with social justice.

But they also wanted to improve the way Labour communicated with voters.

Focus groups, previously distrusted by Labour politicians - if they had even heard of such things at all - would became key tools in shaping the party's message.

Advertising executives and pollsters, previously treated with suspicion by left wing politicians, were drafted into the modernisers' inner circle to advise on presentation.

Leadership deal

Blair and Brown were promoted rapidly through the shadow cabinet ranks, but when it came to who would stand as the "modernising" candidate when leader John Smith died of a heart attack in 1994, their supporters were split. Many assumed Brown, as the older of the two, would take precedence.

BLAIR'S FAVOURITE MUSIC
Tony Blair
The Beatles
The Rolling Stones
Led Zeppelin
Free
Bruce Springsteen
U2
Coldplay
The Foo Fighters
Simply Red

But the shadow chancellor hesitated, eventually agreeing to give Blair a clear run at the top job.

The deal was supposedly struck over dinner at Granita, an Islington restaurant, with Blair reportedly pledging to hand over to Brown after two terms - and to give him, as chancellor, unprecedented control over the domestic agenda.

But the precise terms of any deal remain hotly contested.

What appears to have been decisive is the decision of Mandelson to switch his backing from Brown to Blair - believing the shadow home secretary to be the better communicator of the two.

It was a decision that caused a "rift" in New Labour from the beginning, Mandelson recently admitted, with the distrust and feuding between Blair and Brown, or more often their respective supporters, coming to dominate British politics.

Soundbites

The new Labour leader was initially seen as something of a political lightweight.

He had easily defeated left wingers John Prescott and Margaret Beckett to snatch the leadership - and he had set about reforming the party with single-minded determination - but he was dubbed "Bambi" by the press and cartoonists depicted him as a slick, permanently grinning public relations man.

Like many in the Labour Party, Blair believed Neil Kinnock's chances of becoming prime minister in 1992 had been destroyed by a hostile tabloid press.

Tony Blair in Basra 2003
British troops saw much action during the Blair years

He was determined not to let that happen to him and he hired tough talking former tabloid journalist Alastair Campbell to sharpen up its press operation.

The pair would obsess over every aspect of Blair's image, placing bets on which of their carefully crafted soundbites would make it on to the evening news bulletins. Campbell normally won.

Blair also courted showbusiness personalities - attempting to align Labour with a new wave of British pop stars and artists emerging in the mid 1990s, dubbed by the style press "cool Britannia".

His speeches at the time bordered on the messianic, tapping into what he saw as a pre-millennial mood of optimism.

Sleaze promise

His specific policies were modest in scope, but his rhetoric was dizzying: He promised nothing less than a country reborn, sweeping away the "sleaze" and drift of the Major years.

And he deployed all of his charm and charisma on TV chat shows, showing himself to be a natural in front of the cameras, in contrast to the more stilted Major.

It worked. Blair swept to a landslide victory in 1997, becoming, at 43, the youngest prime minister in nearly 200 years.

The Blairs enter Downing Street in 1997
Blair's family man image was a key part of his appeal

Always nervous on polling day, he was still gloomily contemplating a possible coalition with the Liberal Democrats, even as the scale of his victory was becoming obvious.

Two hours after polls closed - with the early results indicating a landslide - he ordered supporters in The Royal Festival Hall to stop celebrating for fear of appearing complacent or "triumphalist".

He need not have feared. Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997.

He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain's tired institutions. In the early weeks of his premiership, he held a series of glittering receptions in Downing Street to celebrate his victory.

But behind the scenes, he was haunted by the splits and in-fighting he believed had destroyed previous Labour administrations.

Honeymoon period

He continued to rule over his party with an iron will, battling to impose his own choice of candidates in the first London mayoral contest and devolved assembly elections and ensuring ministers remained "on message" at all times.

Wary of the civil service's ability to deliver his policy goals, he centralised power in Downing Street. He preferred to make decisions with a small band of trusted advisors, rather than through more formal Cabinet procedures, prompting accusations of "cronyism" and claims he was running a presidential style of government.

Anti-war protest
The public backlash against Iraq prompted thoughts of quitting

The media manipulation techniques that had served him so well in opposition were also beginning to earn his government a reputation for "spin".

But Blair's personality - and his ability to connect with people through television - continued to be central to Labour's appeal.

Within weeks of being elected, he delivered a halting, emotionally-charged eulogy to Princess Diana, on the morning of her death.

It was a performance which seemed to capture the public mood. He would later insist that the phrase "the people's princess" was his own and not Alastair Campbell's invention, as cynics claimed.

Euro decision

Then, when he was engulfed by his first party funding scandal, accused of offering favours in return for a 1m donation from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, he again took to the airwaves, pleading with the public to keep their faith in him.

"I think most people who have dealt with me, think I'm a pretty straight sort of guy and I am," he told the BBC's John Humphrys.

Blair's honeymoon period with the electorate felt like it would go on forever and his popularity received a further boost in 2000, when Cherie announced that, at the age of 45, she was to become a mother again.

Leo Blair became the first legitimate child to be born to a serving prime minister in 150 years.

BLAIR HOLIDAYS
Tony and Cherie Blair, Bangalore 2001
1997: Tuscany, guest of Geoffrey Robinson, Labour MP and businessman
1998: Tuscany, Prince Girolamo Strozzi, law professor and family friend
1999: Tuscany, Vannino Chiti, Tuscan president
2001: Ariege, Southern France, Sir Martin Keene, high court judge and family friend
2003 - 06: Barbados, Sir Cliff Richard, singer
2004: Sardinia, Silvio Berlusconi, Italian premier and media mogul
2006: Barbados, Sir Anthony Bamford, JCB boss and Tory donor
2007: Miami, Robin Gibb, Bee Gees member

Blair swept to another landslide election victory in 2001, pledging to deliver improvements to health and education he had been promising since 1997.

The timidity and reliance on focus groups that had characterised much of his first term began to be replaced by more sure-footed and decisive leadership.

He had already angered the left by talking about the "scars on his back" from his early, tentative attempts to make the public services more efficient.

Now he was determined to be more bold in his approach, reasoning that the unions could hardly complain about market reforms with record amounts of cash pouring into schools and hospitals.

The only cloud on Blair's horizon was his worsening relationship with Gordon Brown, which, observers said, alternated between table-thumping rows and sullen periods of silence.

Fresh mandate

Emboldened by his fresh mandate, he appointed Blairites to key positions across government, from David Blunkett at the home office to Estelle Morris at education, in an attempt to wrest control of the domestic agenda from the Treasury.

But it was Brown, who was said to be increasingly obsessed with becoming prime minister, that held all the aces when it came to the one thing Blair really wanted.

He had long planned to take Britain into the euro, believing it would define his legacy and finally place Britain at the "heart of Europe" after years on the margins under the Conservatives.

But Brown was less convinced of the case for joining the euro and, crucially, he had seized control of the entry process, devising five "economic tests" that had to be passed before Britain ditched the pound.

A referendum was promised for 2003, but by then the economic argument for the euro had been lost. The five tests had not been passed, Brown decreed, and the single currency was kicked into the long grass, along with Blair's dreams of a European legacy.

Iraq

But by then Blair had found another, larger mission - one that really would write his name into the history books, for better or worse.

Blair had always taken a single-minded approach to foreign policy. He appeared to enjoy the company of the no-nonsense men of action he found in the military.

They made a refreshing change from the naturally cautious civil servants that surrounded him in Downing Street - or the left-wing MPs and union leaders who it seemed to him were forever trying to stand in the way of progress.

Early successes in Sierra Leone and Kosovo convinced Blair of the value of military action in pursuit of humanitarian aims.

Cherie and Tony Blair at 2006 Labour conference
The Blairs' marriage has remained solid throughout

Colleagues said his Christian faith gave him a clearer sense of moral purpose than many of those around him - but it was not a subject he was ever comfortable talking about in public.

He had forged a close relationship with US President Bill Clinton during his first term in office, with whom he shared a centre-left political philosophy.

But to the surprise and dismay of many in his own party, including his loyal deputy John Prescott, he formed an even closer bond with Clinton's successor, the Republican George W Bush.

The 11 September attacks moved the relationship on to a different level.

Failure

Blair toured the world, shoring up support for the Bush administration, utterly convinced of his own powers of persuasion and advocacy; instinctively believing Britain's place was at America's side in her hour of need.

But it was the 2003 decision to invade Iraq - without a UN mandate and in the teeth of bitter opposition at home and abroad - that would link the two leaders together in the public mind for ever.

Blair had drawn on every last ounce of his persuasive skill to make the case for war to MPs and the wider public.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown 2005 election campaign
Blair and Brown buried the hatchet for the 2005 election campaign

But the subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq appeared to confirm many people's worst suspicions about him - that he relied too much on spin and was not to be trusted.

In the public backlash that followed he briefly considered quitting.

He was persuaded to carry on by Cabinet supporters but in October 2004 he surprised everyone by announcing he would not seek a fourth term in office if he won the next election.

The announcement had been designed to end speculation about his health - he had undergone an operation to correct an irregular heart beat.

'Lame duck'

But it only succeeded in sparking more damaging speculation about his departure date, leading opponents to brand him a "lame duck" premier.

For the 2005 general election campaign, Alastair Campbell devised what came to be known as the "masochism strategy", with Blair allowing voters to vent their anger about Iraq at him in a series of TV debates.

He became the first Labour leader to win three consecutive terms in office but any elation was short-lived. His share of the popular vote was the lowest on record for any prime minister.

His self-belief and powers of persuasion remained undimmed. Over one remarkable 24 hour period, he flew to Singapore to help London land the 2012 Olympics - punching the air with glee as he did so - before flying back to Gleneagles, in Scotland, to unveil a debt relief package for Africa.

They were the two of the biggest achievements of his premiership.

Tony Blair - 2007 Labour conference
Blair's final conference speech was an emotional occasion
But they were instantly overshadowed by the 7 July attack on the London transport system - the first suicide attacks mainland Britain had ever witnessed.

His opinion poll ratings improved in the immediate aftermath of 7 July, as he once again proved his ability to capture the nation's mood in a time of crisis.

But when a bombers' taped testimony was released blaming the attack on Blair's foreign policy, it threw the spotlight back on to Iraq and his refusal to apologise for what his opponents saw as a terrible miscalculation.

Blair was convinced Britain was engaged, with America, in a global "war on terror" but he was having trouble bringing many in his party with him.

Final straw

When he failed to condemn Israel's bombing of Lebanon, once again standing four square with George Bush in the face of mounting criticism around the world, it was the final straw for many normally loyal Labour MPs.

A series of resignations by junior ministers, who believed his failure to name a departure date was damaging the party, underlined his weakened position and he was forced to announce he would be gone by September 2007.

It was not, he confessed, the way he had wanted it to end.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair has been Sedgefield's MP for nearly 25 years

In his own mind, and that of his supporters, he was a prime minister at the peak of his powers.

His extraordinary farewell speech at the 2006 party conference in Manchester reminded even his harshest Labour Party critics what they would be losing when he was gone. The charisma that had served him so well over the years was still intact.

The difference was that he no longer agonised over his own popularity. It was enough for him to know that he had "done the right thing".

His final months in office were dogged by a police investigation into allegations he had nominated party donors for peerages.

He became the first serving prime minister to be interviewed as part of a police investigation, although Downing Street was keen to stress he was being treated as a witness.

The affair had its origins before the 2005 general election when Blair - concerned by the size of the Tories' war chest - sought massive loans from a series of wealthy individuals, which he kept secret from all but a few members of his inner circle. Even Labour's treasurer was kept in the dark.

I am not going to beg for my character in front of anyone. People can make up their own mind about me
Tony Blair

Four of the lenders were subsequently nominated for peerages, but were rejected by the independent appointments' commission, sparking opposition claims they had been "sold" honours.

Blair was accused of flouting his own rules on party funding, introduced as part of his drive to "clean up" politics.

Parliamentary standards commissioner Sir Alastair Graham accused him of destroying trust in politics, saying the issue would be associated with his time in office in the way "sleaze" was with John Major.

But rather than pleading to be trusted, as he had in 1997 during the Bernie Ecclestone affair, Blair simply refused to talk about the allegations.

"I am not going to beg for my character in front of anyone. People can make up their own mind about me," he told the BBC in February.

Conviction politician

He said he had "a deep respect for the British people and it's been an honour and privilege to lead them". But he said he had "changed" over the past 10 years. He was a "different sort of person" now, who was less concerned about being "liked".

Blair had been hardened by a decade in office.

He had become a conviction politician - a very different character to the one that had first walked into Downing Street in 1997, guitar case in hand.




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