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Study Notes

Tony Blair: Blair Loses Control

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 29 Oct 2018

In this final study note on Tony Blair as Prime Minister we explore some key examples of what happened when Blair can be argued to have lost control of his Cabinet and / or parliament.

For most of his premiership, Tony Blair had firm control of both his cabinet and of parliament. Occasionally he had less control of his party outside parliament (for example, they would occasionally select left-wing candidates opposed to Blair for important roles, such as selecting Ken Livingstone to run as Labour’s candidate for London Mayor). However, in parliament and in the cabinet, Blair had a vice-like grip.

It began to weaken a little over the Iraq War. He had built a very positive public image of himself and was hurt by the way he was personally attacked over Iraq and accused of lying about intelligence reports. Of course, playing a presidential role and being so personally connected with the government is a double-edged sword. When things go well and popular actions are taken, that presidential individual gets most of the credit. However, when things go wrong, the opposite occurs. Blame is not spread among all government ministers or MPs, but firmly focused on that one individual.

Blair had to make difficult decisions in terms of cabinet management in the lead up to the war. Robin Cook resigned from the cabinet over the war, Clare Short did not resign but publicly criticised the policy. In normal circumstances, Blair would have immediately demanded her resignation. However, the thought of having both Cook and Short speaking in the debate on the war and criticising the government position, despite having been in cabinet for intelligence briefings, etc. was too big a threat. So he kept Short in place until the main phase of the war was over, and then sacked her. This was perceived by many as a sign of weakness. The confident Blair of 1997, who led his party while John Major followed his, would not have hesitated over sacking a cabinet minister who made public attacks on government policy.

By the 2005 General Election, Blair was no longer an electoral asset, lifting up Labour’s vote with his personal support, but instead became more of an electoral liability. There then followed more signs of Blair’s weakness. On the one hand he pushed some controversial public service reforms through parliament, despite increasing backbench rebellions. On the other, it became increasingly obvious that Gordon Brown, or people around Gordon Brown, was briefing against Blair and manoeuvring to replace Blair with Brown. Yet, the once confident, presidential and charismatic Blair did not feel able to move against Brown and either demote him or sack him. He clearly thought Brown too big a threat on the backbenches as a potential leader of rebels and critics.

Having never lost a vote in the House of Commons from 1997 to 2005, Blair’s final period in office saw a rash of defeats. With a majority of 66, this required large backbench rebellions, but the backbenchers had developed a taste for rebellion over Iraq and also issues like tuition fees and foundation hospitals.

The most high-profile defeat was over a proposal to all terrorist suspects to be held without charge for 90 days. 49 Labour MPs rebelled. The government’s backup position (of 60 days) was also rejected with the Commons eventually backing a 28-day period.

After this vote, significant pressure was applied on Blair to name a date of departure, and while he did not actually resign for another two years, these were two years of fire-fighting problems in the Labour Party rather than achieving much as prime minister. Rather like that other charismatic, presidential, long-serving prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in the end it was Blair’s own side that brought his premiership to an end, not the British people in a general election.

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