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Tony Blair: Blair in Control

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 29 Oct 2018

What can we learn about how Tony Blair was able to lead whilst very much in control of his government?

Tony Blair deliberately chose to take a presidential approach to leadership. He famously quipped about his predecessor John Major that “I lead my party, he follows his”. He ensured that he personally was associated with the government’s image and decisions, making high-profile speeches on the various issues of the day, in a presidential way.

This sometimes led to criticism and satirical attack. For example, he said, in the final stages of negotiating the Good Friday Agreement: “this is not a time for soundbites. We’ve left them at home. I feel the hand of history on our shoulders”, which was widely ridiculed.

However, he was generally well-received for his speech about Princess Diana, and his “I am a pretty straight sort of guy” broadcast, following the Formula One tobacco advertising scandal seemed to largely do the trick.

Blair was able to use his charisma and popularity (and large parliamentary majority) to exercise power over both cabinet and parliament. Blair surrounded himself with a large office staff, including his press officer Alistair Campbell who was a key figure in the administration. Many in the cabinet saw this “sofa government” at Number 10 as being where the real decisions were taken, with the cabinet performing more of a rubber-stamping role. Blair would meet with one or two ministers about key issues rather than discussing them with the whole cabinet. If he did not want to include a dissenting voice, he left them out (for example, in discussions about the Iraq War, he excluded his International Development Secretary, Clare Short, despite her department having a clear interest in the decisions taken).

Blair was able to assert his authority over the cabinet by appointing key supporters. While he also kept some potential critics in ministerial positions (and therefore bound by collective responsibility) between 1997 and 2005 he was confident enough in his large majority to not worry too much about sending people to the backbenches.

Where there was significant difference of opinion in the cabinet on an issue, Blair was skilful in getting his own way. Although issues around the Iraq War will feature heavily in the next section, in some ways Blair’s handling of this crisis was an object lesson in prime ministerial dominance of the cabinet. Potential dissidents were sidelined; others were sent out into the media spotlight to defend government policy (and from then on be publicly associated with it). Some, like John Prescott and Gordon Brown were careful to make few public statements about Iraq, although both remained in the cabinet and voted for the war.

It was clear that Blair would lose some ministers over Iraq, but he kept these to a minimum with only one senior cabinet casualty before the key vote in parliament (Robin Cook). Even then, it was convenient that Cook had been moved to Leader of the Commons and was no longer Foreign Secretary at the point of his resignation. Cook had already been unhappy about his apparent demotion from Foreign Secretary in 2001, but Blair generally managed to keep people in the cabinet despite such disappointments with only a handful of resignations and very few of those over political issues.

Blair rarely had much difficulty dominating parliament because, for most of his premiership, he had an enormous parliamentary majority. In 2003 he was able to absorb the biggest backbench rebellion ever (over Iraq) without even depending on Conservative votes (most of which backed Blair and the war). The rebellion could well have been bigger: Blair had let word go out among Labour MPs that he considered the vote a confidence issue (i.e. had he lost it, he would have resigned as prime minister); MPs were summoned to special meetings where they were apparently given secret intelligence briefings that convinced many of them to vote for the war. Popular cabinet ministers, like Peter Hain, made television appearances saying “if you had seen the intelligence I have seen, you would support the prime minister”). In the end, thanks to Conservative support, the vote was comfortable.

After 2005, the parliamentary arithmetic was less kind to Blair, although he still had a comfortable majority of 66. However, he also had a Parliamentary Labour Party that had got a taste for rebellion.

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