Vicars and bookies

March 14, 2003 ,

SOMEBODY once said that all Prime Ministers are either ‘vicars or bookies.'

They are either a bit prim, priggish and moral, or more raffish, roguish, gamblers.

By that definition, Churchill was a bookie and Attlee a vicar. Macmillan and Wilson were definitely bookies but Thatcher was a vicar.

By this standard Tony Blair would definitely be categorised as a vicar; a religious man driven by a belief in the morality of his actions, prepared to act contrary to public opinion to do what he thinks is right.

The job of a modern Prime Minister is mind-bogglingly punishing. The late Roy Jenkins claimed that Clement Attlee told him that being Prime Minister left him more spare time than any other job he had done.

Not so for Tony Blair. I was staggered when I met with him last week along with a small number of colleagues, that he seemed relaxed and alert.

He had just spent 48 hours in intense negotiations in Northern Ireland which ended after midnight. He had dinner at 1am in Belfast, flew back to London, slept for three hours, prepared for Prime Minister's questions, then met us to discuss Iraq.

It is rumoured that when he does look tired, as he did this week, that it is more to do with baby Leo's inability to sleep through the night.

But at this moment of international crisis the tensions are greater than ever. Anthony Eden's wife Clarissa famously said at the time of the Suez crisis,

‘For the past few weeks I have felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room.'
It must seem as if the sands of the Iraqi deserts are blowing through No. 10. But while the Prime Minister has been seeking an agreed resolution at the United Nations, some have been talking about bringing him down.

The truth is that those small number of MPs who have raised this are the same group who would have reduced the Labour Party to an obscure and unelectable political sect if they had controlled its leadership.

I believe that Britain should not participate in military action without the authority of the United Nations, which was set up to build collective security following the Second World War.

But nobody has a monopoly on morality in the current debate about the war. I attended a meeting organised by Ann Clywd this week where Iraqi Kurds told their stories of the brutality they and their families had suffered under Saddam Hussein.

One woman read a poem about the gassing of 5000 Kurds in Halabja on 17 March 1988. She had first read the poem in the same room in the Commons in 1989 asking for the international community to do something about Saddam.

It is possible to disagree with someone about an issue as fundamental and profound as war on Iraq, but still to respect their opinion and sincerity.

Perhaps Tony Blair is a vicar in the sense that he is genuine and sincere in pursuing what he believes is right, but maybe in his willingness to gamble all on his convictions there is, after all, an element of the bookie.