Tony Blair and the office of PM

number10-door4-474-150x150I 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.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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10 Responses to Tony Blair and the office of PM

  1. labeldesalis says:

    Was it Blairite casualness or EU sabotage that lead to the removal of the Lord Chancellor from the Woolsack and both the Lord Chancellor and the Law Lords from the Lords?

    • Lord Norton says:

      It was Blair’s ignorance or disregard for the constitution that led to his intention to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor and to create a Supreme Court being announced as part of a Government reshuffle – and without any prior consultation with the Law Lords. He had to be advised that the post of Lord Chancellor could not simply be abolished overnight, given the sheer number of statutes and other documents that made reference to the position.

  2. Tony Sands says:

    Was it not the size of Blair’s parliamentary majorities that reinforced these tendencies – especially his presidential style – whereas John Major and David Cameron have needed to be acutely aware of backbench opinion to carry through legislation. Won’t all modern Prime Ministers adopt Blair’s approach in order to be effective given the chance. Blair’s governments surely didn’t have to tread as carefully as Cameron in policy implementation because of its huge majorities.
    How was Blair different from Thatcher in this respect? To misquote Callaghan – she lived by the sword and died by the sword – in the same way as Blair did in that they both were driven very reluctantly out of office.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Blair was the only truly rootless Prime Minister. The others had some grounding in party, Parliament or Government. Margaret Thatcher, as one of her Cabinet colleagues put it to me, did not understand Parliament (though she thought she did), but she did take it seriously. Unlike Blair, she did not leave Parliament the moment she ceased to be PM. She also worked within the existing processes of Government. Majorities are relevant to how PMs behave, but they are only part of it. Thatcher only acquired a large majority in 1983.

      • Tony Sands says:

        Yes, your points are very thought-provoking. Blair’s lack of roots is clear in the fact that his New Labour brand has now become so toxic.
        I recall Richard Toye’s Guardian review from May 2015
        that I read a couple of weeks ago after attending a lecture by Francis Beckett partly on the subject of Blair’s earnings from his activities after leaving office. Toye makes the simple point that Blair was interested more in effective government than democracy:
        “Certainly, narcissism and love of money are important aspects of Blair’s character. But his habit of getting cosy with tyrants is not just about ego and personal enrichment; arguably, it is in line with his longstanding preference for “effective” government over democratic government, itself possibly a product of his own difficulties in office. We may not like Blair’s convictions but we cannot understand his behaviour fully unless we admit both that they exist and that – as the Labour leadership debates are now demonstrating – they are of continuing relevance to today’s scene. Perhaps if he had been more careful of his personal reputation, his political principles would stand a chance of wider current acceptance.”
        I’m not sure whether I have the stamina to read Beckett’s book about Blair but in his very interesting presentation, he alluded to Blair’s deep psychological needs both to carry on as a statesman in the world stage – i.e. having the status, access and the voice of a Prime Minister whilst at the same time accruing vast sums of money providing layers of personal financial security.
        Beckett also points to Blair’s willingness to act for rather dodgy regimes which also questions his ethical approach to the exercise of power. In my naïveté, I found Beckett’s view of Blair shocking.

  3. Dave H says:

    You’d probably moderate out my comments on Blair if I put what I really thought of him. He also managed to trash the university system by devaluing the degree and increasing the cost to the point where the country couldn’t afford it as an investment. This threw the burden onto students who’d been conned into thinking it was worth spending all that money to get a degree. Today’s students are still suffering from his actions.

  4. tizres says:

    Arguably, then, Mr Blair’s residency was the first wave of anti-establishment voting by the general public.

  5. labeldesalis says:

    Slightly off the subject, but it might amuse you. I think the BBC Radio 4 4pm newsreader today got mixed up whilst describing Blairmore Ltd, David Cameron, and Iain Cameron (the PM’s father), and somehow then referred to the late Iain Cameron, as Mr Blair.

  6. maude elwes says:

    Blair and his monstrous ego was perfect for those who placed him in the position they needed to put him. He was a pawn in the road to uncontrolled theft of the tax payers safety net. And all those who kept him there and continue to pat his back deserve exactly what they will ultimately receive.

    Now he and his family should be thoroughly investigated for tax avoidance and possibly fraud by lack of revelation.

    Remember this guy? Clearly he knew far more than has ever been revealed.

    He did what he was allowed to do.

    I shall be reading LN’s book with great interest.

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