Study Notes

Tony Blair: Blair's Cabinets

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 29 Oct 2018

This study note explores some of the key features of Tony Blair's Cabinets during his time as Prime Minister.

Tony Blair’s first cabinet was the only one he did not entirely choose for himself. His Shadow Cabinet stepped up to the cabinet table and, in the Labour Party at that time, the MPs (the Parliamentary Labour Party or PLP) elected MPs to sit on the front bench.

However, Blair did have control over what position they held in his cabinet, and some of the people he might not have chosen for himself were kept in junior positions (e.g. the veteran left-winger Michael Meacher). Others who had full cabinet positions, like David Clark and Gavin Strang, were shuffled out of the cabinet at the first opportunity (July 1998, Blair’s first major reshuffle).

Having said that many of Blair’s ministers remained in position for a longer period of time.

Gordon Brown remained in the same post (Chancellor of the Exchequer) for the full premiership (10 years), alongside John Prescott who remained Deputy Prime Minister (although this was seen as being linked with his role as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, which was an elected position).

Blair only had:

  • Two Secretaries for Culture Media and Sport (Chris Smith and Tessa Jowell)
  • Three Foreign Secretaries (Robin Cook, Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett)
  • Four Home Secretaries (Jack Staw, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid)
  • Four Defence Secretaries (George Robertson, Geoff Hoon, John Reid and Des Browne), and
  • Four Health Secretaries (Frank Dobson, Alan Milburn, John Reid and Patricia Hewitt)

As can be seen, certain ministers, like Jack Straw and John Reid, performed several senior roles across the period.

Other departments saw more regular changes with five education secretaries, six cabinet ministers looking after social security/work and pensions, seven Chief Secretaries to the Treasury and nine Cabinet Office ministers. At junior levels, there were very regular changes, as is to be expected, as often those roles are seen as rungs on the ladder to more senior roles.

We have a few insights into what Blair’s cabinets were like. These come from some diaries (such as those of Robin Cook) and also from comments and speeches from those who left or were removed from the cabinet (such as Clare Short). These give the impression of Blair taking something of a presidential approach to cabinet, with short full-cabinet meetings generally rubber-stamping decisions that had been taken elsewhere (either in various bilateral meetings, cabinet committees or in what came to be described as “sofa government”: Blair’s meetings with close advisers and supporters outside the formal government structures).

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