9/11: when Tony Blair looked like a true leader
9/11 showed Blair to be a leader of men; the trouble was, he led them down the wrong path
"I HAVE just spoken to President Bush and this is the situation," said Tony Blair as COBRA, the British government's emergency response committee, reconvened on the morning of September 12, 2001, having been in session for much of the previous day. I breathed a sigh of relief. As a member of the Cabinet Office Assessments Staff, I had been one of the group detailed by our boss, John Scarlett, to prepare an intelligence briefing.
The atmosphere was not good. You could cut chunks of it out with a spoon, as PG Wodehouse once put it. It was a bad day for a bomb. Scarlett had taken over as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee just nine days before. Murphy's Law, as ever, meant that our top terrorism expert was away on holiday.
Even the usually poker-faced SAS representatives looked worried. We were collectively the people in the country most in the know and the majority of us thought London would be under attack before the day was out especially the part of London we were in, Downing Street.
COBRA, the atmospheric name for the committee, is actually an acronym for plain old Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. Curiously, it usually met in Cabinet Office Briefing Room F underneath Downing Street but that would not sound as atmospheric.
Occasionally, it transferred itself to the H Bomb-proof briefing rooms beneath the Ministry of Defence, reassuringly codenamed OPindar' after the ancient Greek poet whose house in Thebes was the only building Alexander the Great allowed to remain standing when he razed the city. We would have felt better in Pindar.
After sharing with us what George W Bush had just told him on the telephone, the prime minister moved swiftly on to issuing precise orders to the RAF for the shooting down of civilian airliners believed to have been hijacked. There had been some discussion that the military would take the decision. He made it clear that it was a decision for him alone.
Golly, Tony Blair was good. His language was precise which is important when giving orders. He communicated calm and decisiveness. It wasn't an act. He knew what to do. It was his moment.
And when he had finished issuing the key instructions, and got up to leave the room, I noticed - approvingly, as a Guards officer - that he was wearing very shiny black shoes. He adjusted his jacket on the way out in a way we have seen countless times on television. Just before the door he turned, looked round the room, nodded and left. He trusted everyone else at the meeting to get on with what needed to be done.
It was a textbook, virtuoso display of crisis leadership. Better than anything I had seen from senior army officers in my 20-year military career much better. It did not seem like an act and it wasn't entirely to do with his office. Gordon Brown could not have done it and I doubt the hard-bitten men and women at COBRA would be that impressed by David Cameron in a real crisis. There was something about Tony Blair that was just right.
I left the highly respected Assessments Staff six months later. It had been an extraordinary privilege to spend two-and-a-half years there. Our judgment and analytical rigour were respected across the intelligence world. We had played a key part in the UK's response to the worst terror threat for a generation. John Scarlett kindly agreed that I could wear uniform at the last meeting of the Joint Intelligence Committee I attended. It was a proud
moment for me.
Within a few months, as we now know, the whole apparatus was in the hands of Alastair Campbell.
I have often wondered about Tony Blair in the years since. How come so many people, previously of good character and judgment, went willingly along with his follies, especially in Iraq. The answer is uncomfortable. It wasn't because he was a fraud or a good actor. It was because, as was clear to me on 9/12, he really is that rare phenomenon, a charismatic leader of men. ·
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