Man in the middle: Tony Blair

From Cool Britannia to the searing legacy of Iraq, Tony Blair's career as British prime minister had a certain tragic arc: The same people who gushed over him at the beginning hounded him out at the end.

Blair seeks to recapture the early magic in "A Journey," a testament to the modernizing instincts and political pluck that won an unprecedented three elections in a row for a Labour Party once dedicated to industrial nationalization and unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Except for the swipes at Gordon Brown, Blair's part-ally, part-rival and luckless successor, and indiscriminate thrusts at what he sees as the monolithic media, this memoir tosses few of the poison darts that typify British political autobiography. The tone is respectful, in keeping with the Teflon nonchalance that got Blair through 10 years at 10 Downing Street.

Blair comes across as the bemused head of a dysfunctional family, featuring the dour brainiac Brown, in charge of the nation's finances; John Prescott, the pugilistic deputy prime minister who decks an egg-wielding protester; and cancer-stricken Mo Mowlam, who yanks off her wig during the Northern Ireland peace talks and declares she'd rather be having sex.

Labour self-flagellation is in full swing after David Cameron, borrowing Blairite (and Clintonite) seek-the-middle inclinations, steered the Conservatives back into power in May. Blair echoes New Labour co-architect Peter Mandelson, who pipped him by some six weeks in the memoirs race, in faulting Brown for straying from New Labour's precepts after the arranged power handover in 2007.

Blair's take on his odd political coupling with Brown — there was no deal back in 1994 that they would be tag-team prime ministers, he says — will dominate the British reaction to this book. He waits 600 pages before letting rip, lampooning Brown's "no instinct at the human, gut level," dissing his "emotional intelligence, zero" and blaming him for giving the game away.

What the glib, above-the-fray Blair fails to explain convincingly is why he let Brown erode his reformist agenda from within. The time to shunt him aside would have been at the start of the second term, in 2001. Blair seemed intimidated by Brown's intellectual stature and grassroots backing. And as someone who liked to be liked, he felt a Brown demotion would be viewed as "a piece of petty spite on my part, as a jealousy move."

Some wondrous insider anecdotes grace these pages: Brown getting locked in a bathroom when the two were having it out over who would become Labour leader in 1994; Blair tripping over a Buckingham Palace carpet and stumbling into Queen Elizabeth II's arms when being appointed prime minister in 1997; and Blair lunging for a "stiff drink" to recover from a 60-second bear hug by Russia's Boris Yeltsin in 1999.

There's a cliffhanger quality to the narration of the 1998 Northern Ireland negotiations, the 2005 European Union budget clash and London's 2005 bid for the Summer Olympics. In comparison, the tick-tock of the run-up to the Iraq war falls, as literature at least, curiously flat.

Blair's defense of the decision to invade (a confessional this is not) reads like one of the court briefs he penned for seven years as a lawyer. The closest he gets to criticizing the "very smart" George W. Bush is to note the "immense simplicity" of the Texan's worldview.

Bush himself was wary of the "axis of evil" claim, we are told; and any compulsion to go to war in 2003 was driven by a U.S. system in the grips of post-9/11 hysteria. (Our gallant Brit laughs off Bush's "Yo, Blair!" shout-out, caught on a live microphone at the 2006 Group of Eight summit, as testimony to the duo's "total intimacy.")

Blair's trans-Atlantic solidarity may help sell this book in the United States, home to his biggest fan base after his falling-out with the British public over Iraq. European readers will wonder what happened to the modernizer who aimed to put Britain at the heart of Europe.

How Brown squelched Blair's flirtation with the euro is a question that goes unanswered. Maybe a future historian will stumble across the transcript of the decisive one-on-one.

Perhaps to rebut accusations that policy detail isn't his thing, Blair drones at length on reforms to education, welfare, Britain's chronically infirm health service and crime fighting. Yet except for the 1997 granting of independence to the Bank of England, Blair gives short shrift to the big economic decisions. He doesn't recognize, let alone regret, New Labour's role in inflating the British public sector.

The enigma of Blair, now 57, lies in the fact that he is, in his own words, a "normal human being." Like Bill Clinton, he alienated his leftist base yet never overcame the antipathy of the right. His achievements lie somewhere in the vast, unlabeled middle.

The Labour reformer makes no secret of his awe for Margaret Thatcher, as both a political titan and the unleasher of free-market individualism in Britain. You cannot help feeling that Blair is resigned to her legacy enduring longer than his.

"A Journey: My Political Life" by Tony Blair (Alfred A. Knopf, 702 pages, $35)