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Blair has much to teach his successors

The Independent, September 6th 2010

You have to be prepared to let your advisers go when they’ve had enough. This was the mistake he made with both Alastair Campbell and Anji Hunter and he regretted it

‘I’m “so angry with Tony,” a disgruntled Labour leadership contender told me the day after the prime ministerial memoirs were published. “How could he have done this on the day the ballots went out?” The five candidates disagree on Trident, on tax and on much else. But on one thing, they’re united. Blair was foolish and disloyal to bring his book out now.

Some complained about the content as well as the timing. Ed Balls did so yesterday despite admitting he hadn’t read a word of it. But all five ought to read it – and so should leading Tories and Liberal Democrats. For whatever its faults, and toe-curling passages, Tony Blair: A Journey has many good lessons on how to succeed in both opposition and government.

Enough has been written on whether the new Labour leader should continue the New Labour legacy. But this isn’t just a question or whether they should support academy schools or refrain from over-taxing the rich. It is more an attitude of mind. New Labour was quintessentially non-tribal. As Blair writes: “I had no patience with tribal party politics, with its exaggerated differences, rancorous disputes and irrational prejudices.” This was what initially endeared him to the public, most of whom feel the same way. One of the attractions of today’s coalition Government is that it has transcended tribal politics. Whoever becomes Labour leader must understand the nature of this new politics.

Blair did from the start. In his very first Prime Minister’s Questions as Opposition leader, he shocked the House of Commons and seasoned political hacks by praising John Major’s achievements in Northern Ireland. Voters loved it – as they did much later when David Cameron was prepared to support Labour’s educational reforms because he thought they were right. This is a style that the older, and possibly the younger, Miliband could bring himself to adopt. Ed Balls would find it harder – he is intensely tribal and factional, and behaved as if he were in opposition for much of the time he was in government.

It is also hugely tempting, in opposition, to be opportunistic. But, according to Blair, it is usually a mistake. When William Hague more or less backed the fuel protestors in 2001, he looked foolish and opened himself to Blair’s jibe that he couldn’t let a bandwagon pass without jumping on it. As the former PM says: “Opportunity always knocks for an Opposition leader, but sometimes it’s best not to answer and leave it knocking. The public start with one mood, and when the mood changes, if you’re not careful and you have tried to exploit it, you’re high and dry.”

Most of the book, though, deals with government, and here there are many lessons for the current administration. A Conservative Cabinet minister admitted to me that he had been racing through the memoirs, thinking, “Yes, yes, yes!” Such tips aren’t usually offered by outgoing Prime Ministers to their political opponents. Yet Blair writes, “It is quite sensible to try to understand why the previous tenant [of No 10] did this or that, what they learned and what they found when living there. Unfortunately that education is inconsistent with the way politics is conducted…You spend several years relearning what the last occupant could have told you from experience.”

David Cameron has always been keen to learn from Blair’s successes and failures. He and his henchmen pored over Philip Gould’s account of New Labour’s rise to power, The Unfinished Revolution, and determined that they shouldn’t waste their first term, as he did, by being too cautious. Blair admits that, so minimal were the party’s pledges in 1997, “The challenge wasn’t meeting them. The challenge was: so what? New Labour, New Britain? It was ridiculous.”

Some of the most useful advice for Cameron, though, is personal. It is important to surround yourself, as Blair did, with a group of advisers who are unafraid to tell truth to power. Equally, you have to be prepared to let them go when they have had enough and not to convince yourself that they are irreplaceable. That was the mistake Blair made with both Alastair Campbell and Anji Hunter, and he regretted it.

Don’t allow yourself to become over-sensitive. “You have to be fantastically careful of being wound up by people who love the chatter and the intrigue and the ‘behind the arras’ stuff, or even by very well-intentioned close staff who genuinely believe you are being badly done by. Paranoia is the worst condition for a political leader to suffer from.” Blair had many faults, but he never became caught up in the Wilsonian – or indeed Brownian – belief that other people were out to do him down. Ironically, a lot of the time they were.

A Prime Minister should never take himself too seriously. Blair did – Jonathan Powell called it his “Messiah complex” – but he tells a good story about a visit from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. “He was as bouncy and confident as ever. He had vast plans for France, for Europe, for the world. ‘God,’ I said to him after twenty minutes of this, ‘you sound like Napoleon.’ “‘Thank you,’ he replied straight-faced; then I looked closely and saw with relief that twinkle in his eye.”

Prime ministers must not allow themselves to become corroded. “You must beware of resentment in politics even more than in life itself,” Blair counsels. “First, it is a bad and distorting emotion. Second, it is an unhealthy emotion in a leader. Third, you usually have little overall cause for complaint given the overwhelming privileges leadership bestows.” Finally, you have to grow the thickest possible skin. Yet the paradox that shouts from the pages of this book is that, as Blair’s hide toughened, he both matured as a leader and brought about his own downfall. In his second and third terms, he became much more concerned with what was “right” and less concerned with what was popular or politically expedient. This he saw as true leadership.

Take the reform of student finance. “It is an object lesson in the progress of reform: the change is proposed; it is denounced as a disaster; it proceeds with vast chipping away and opposition; it is unpopular; it comes about; within a short space of time, it is as if it had always been so.”

As he argued to Gordon Brown at the time, the public expect politicians to take unpopular decisions. If the change is necessary and right, but still unpopular, the public may complain but not as much as if the politicians had ducked the challenge and ceased to lead.

The trouble is that Blair became increasingly convinced of his rectitude – everything he supported, from the invasion of Iraq to the EU constitution and ID cards, he simply declared to be “right”, as if that were the end of the argument. As a result, he looked increasingly out of touch. Indeed, he admits that, by 2007, “Being in touch with opinion was no longer the lodestar. Doing what was right had replaced it.”

In the end, though, the public may have enough of unpopular policies. Voters may even be right in thinking that the policies are wrong. So the final lesson for Cameron, if voters don’t push him out earlier, is to leave before it is too late, before he becomes an object of public hatred or derision.

Right back in 1997, at the peak of his popularity, Blair thought, “Get out before they stop listening, stop liking, and start loathing. That was my hope.” If only he had listened to his own advice.

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