I have written various pieces about Tony Blair as Prime Minister, not least the extent to which his lack of understanding of government loosened the glue that holds our political system together. As I wrote in my chapter (‘Tony Blair and the Office of Prime Minister’) in Beech and Lee’s Ten Years of New Labour (2008), ‘In institutional terms, Tony Blair was arguably the first truly rootless Prime Minister. By that, I mean he had no roots, no clear grounding, in politics, the Labour Party, parliament or government. His view of all these appears to be instrumental. He was the quintessential outsider…’.
The timing of him coming to office was also important. The Conservatives in office had, I argued, ‘developed an arrogance borne of familiarity. Labour entered office with an arrogance borne of ignorance. The party, and especially its leader, did not understand government and operated as if still in opposition. After ten years in Downing Street, Tony Blair left office still not understanding government.’ He did not understand the role of Cabinet, of parliament, the courts, or the relationship to the crown. He combined self-confidence with ignorance of government. He was an exemplar of a presidential style of government, not elected directly by the people, but acting as if he were. J. H. Grainger likened him to Weber’s ideal type of independent political leader, a monocrat. ‘Policy stems from or is endorsed by the free decision of the inner-determined, value-driven, subjective leader’.
This analysis is essentially borne out in the just-published Broken Vows, Tom Bower’s study of Blair’s premiership. The book draws out the extent to which, in institutional terms, government under Blair was dysfunctional. I am not here concerned with the merits of individual policies, but the process by which they were reached. As Bower writes, ‘Even after nine years in office, Blair had a limited understanding of government’ (p. 530). That was clearly a view shared by senior civil servants. The book is notable also for what is generally missing from is pages. The House of Commons rarely makes an appearance. There are some mentions of the problems encountered in getting some policies approved, not least war with Iraq, though often in the context of mentioning that they got through with Conservative support. The only references in the index to Parliament are ‘House of Lords reform 107’ and ‘parliamentary standards investigations 497-8, 558-9’. One could argue that this was a fault of the book – Blair faced unprecedented levels of backbench dissent – but it does arguably reflect Blair’s focus, which was not really on Parliament. He joined the front bench the year after he was elected as an MP. He was never again to sit on the back benches. He was, quintessentially, executive man.