Tony Blair and Bill Clinton discussed 'falling star' Princess Diana hours after her death
President and Prime Minister discuss everything from peace in Northern Ireland to eating moose lips with Boris Yeltsin in newly-released transcripts
Published 08/01/2016 | 08:50
Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s phone conversations – on everything from peace in Northern Ireland and Princess Diana’s death to eating moose lips in Russia – have been revealed in a new set of transcripts.
Documents released by Mr Clinton’s presidential library show the two leaders conferring in the wake of terrorist attacks and comparing notes on how to balance being a world leader with bringing up a family.
The 500 pages of documents begin with Mr Clinton calling the new prime minister hours after his 1997 victory and end in late 2000 as the president was preparing to hand over the White House to George W Bush.
Clinton offers congratulations
Shortly after being elected prime minister on May 1, 1997, Mr Blair receives a congratulatory call from Mr Clinton.
Despite the fact that the time is 4:25am in the UK, Mr Blair is heading off to celebrate what he calls a “stunning result”.
Told by Mr Clinton that it is an “amazing” outcome, Mr Blair replies: “Yes, well you showed the way,” referring to the “third-way” path Mr Clinton had paved to centre-Left victories in 1992 and 1996.
When Mr Blair complains that in the lead up to a general election “the Right attack you and the Left don’t defend you”, Mr Clinton replies: “Well, the people voted for you. That’s the main thing.”
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales
One of the most striking moments is a phone call the day after the Princess’s fatal car crash in Paris in the summer of 1997. Mr Blair, who had already made his famous “People’s princess” speech, tells Mr Clinton that her death is “like a star falling”.
Both men express concern for Diana’s two young sons, William and Harry. “She was such a rock of stability in the sense she connected them with the outside world,” Mr Blair says. “The eldest boy, William, is quite like her in a way, he is very ‘feet on the ground’. He does things kids his age do.”
“I just feel so bad for her,” Mr Clinton replies. “She was just basically getting a hold of her life.”
“She was not the Royal family but she was liked by ordinary people – it gave her problems with the royal establishment,” Mr Blair adds.
The threat of Saddam
While most of the conversations on military intervention abroad deal with the Nato campaign over Kosovo, the question of Iraq looms large.
In what now looks like a prophetic warning, in 1999, Mr Clinton tells Mr Blair that he believes Saddam Hussein is likely to become even more of a threat than he already was. “It may not happen while I’m in office, but it will for you,” he tells Mr Blair. “It could become a real nightmare for you.”
Mr Clinton adds that if the world knew how many weapons UN inspectors had found in Iraq, “they would understand why this is so important”.
Mr Clinton appears to be impressed with his opposite number in the Kremlin, who was seen back then as a stabilising figure in post-Soviet Russia.
Even though Mr Putin had been criticised for waging a brutal war in Chechnya, Mr Clinton says of him: “Putin has enormous potential, I think. I think he's very smart and thoughtful. I think we can do a lot of good with him.”
He warns, however, that while the Russian president's intentions were “generally honourable and straightforward”, he could “get squishy on democracy”.
Mr Blair says that the Russian leader felt that “he was not understood” in the West – a complaint the Russian leader continues to make in the wake of world condemnation of his invasion of Ukraine.
“Shrinks” to the world
Mr Blair and Mr Clinton frequently compare notes on their role as brokers in world affairs, from peace talks in Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through to humdrum trade disputes over bananas in Central America.
They congratulate each other on various efforts – especially in securing the Good Friday agreement, which Mr Clinton regards as his greatest foreign policy achievement to this day – but in private they also lament the “hours and hours” spent listening and counselling with different warring parties.
“We end up being part negotiator, part therapist, and part leader,” remarks Mr Blair. Mr Clinton replies: “Someday we should write a book together about these two things, about our role as shrinks.”
Bill Clinton, MP for Scotland
As Mr Clinton was nearing the end of his presidency, he was already pondering his next career move. The president joked with Mr Blair in April, 1999 that when he was “done here” in Washington, he might go into British politics. Mr Blair had just returned from Scotland prior to the call, which gives the golf-loving Mr Clinton an idea.
“Give me a seat from Scotland next door to a good golf course,” he jokes. He says he is keen for a less strenuous assignment, after years of daily dealings with “China being pissed off and Russia threatening war.”
“If you want, you can give me citizenship and make me a Brit,” he adds.
Clinton the babysitter
As Mr Blair’s wife Cherie prepares to give birth to his son Leo, Clinton greets him by saying: “Hello, dad!”
Mr Blair goes on to to describe how Cherie is “in great form but just keeps getting bigger and bigger”, and how he felt as though “my life’s about to begin again”.
Mr Clinton, whose time in office is drawing to a close, offers the Blairs a helping hand. “You know, after January I’m available for babysitting duties,” he says.
The lighter moments
He may be a busy man, but Mr Clinton still has time to make jokes and tell anecdotes. On one occasion he describes at length a lunch with Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president. “He served roast pig and told me real men hack off the ears and eat them. And once he served 24 courses, including moose lips.”
Mr Blair, who seems throughout the conversations to have less patience for idle chatter, answers only: “It is time to get ready for the press conference.” The prime minister seems similarly uninterested when Mr Clinton comments on the office decor chosen by John Prescott, then deputy prime minister.
Mr Clinton says vice-president Al Gore was back from a visit to the UK with a story about how the only decoration in Mr Prescott’s office was a bowl of bananas. “My staff won’t let me talk to you unless I have a banana at hand,” Mr Clinton joked. “I’m sitting here with a banana. It’s a big, ugly, brownish one.”
“Now Bill,” Mr Blair responds. “I thought we should have a word about Kosovo.”
"The middle class know best”
Mr Blair appears to find common ground with Mr Clinton on the importance of capturing the centre ground in politics.
Indeed, both seem to be of the view that the working-class voters took their cue on politics primarily from what the middle class thought anyway.
Mr Clinton remarks: “Ultimately, in a democracy the poor rely upon the social judgment of the middle class.”
Mr Blair replies: “Absolutely.”
Mr Blair does not enjoy the weekly bear pit of Prime Minister’s Questions. In one conversation in 1998, Mr Clinton opens their exchange by referring to Mr Blair’s performance during PMQs the day before on US cable TV.
“What a treat for you!” says Mr Blair sarcastically.
“You got one hateful comment on Iraq from one of your backbenchers, and one hit you on welfare reform,” Mr Clinton observes.
“It doesn’t much matter which row they come from, they’re very often stingers,” Mr Blair replies.