So Long, Blairwell

Memories of the Blair Administration; Tony’s Ten Years, by Adam Boulton

For a very brief two years, Tony Blair was almost forgotten in Britain. Gordon Brown’s premiership was the dominant political story and Blair was away from the daily accountability to the media that British politics make unavoidable. Suddenly, Blair’s bid for the EU Presidency and the apparent fatality of Labour’s fourth term have put Blair in the spotlight. The Sky News anchor, Adam Boulton, hasn’t taken his eye off the story, so that his account, though it certainly isn’t the first, and surely won’t be the last, is timely.

Boulton structures his narrative around the ‘Blairwell tour’ – the Prime Minister’s attempt to highlight his own achievements through a departure schedule of speeches, meetings and summits. Unlike most of the public, Boulton was relatively admiring of the Blair’s victory lap. They had been on a long journey together, as the comely title suggests, and Blair had dominated the political scene in a way that did not just play to his strengths as Thatcher had, but had constantly disorientated the opposition.

Moreoever, as Boulton clearly feels, the exit was classic Blair. In a typical display of imperviousness, the Prime Minister shrugged off the constraints that he had placed on himself, and in turn had been enforced on him by backbench rebellions. Further, he did so in a way that genuinely cemented a policy agenda; securing a deal on the EU budget to unfreeze France’s Common Agricultural Policy; keeping troops in Iraq to complement the US surge, and ensuring that Public Finance Initiatives (PFIs) and Academies continued to revolutionise the delivery of public health and education.

The story was, and still is, unfinished. Blair is a Statesman without a State, behind him so many wasted years and the wish he had gone further, and in front of him nothing certain – two well-intentioned foundations, a fragile international role and a reputation that is still to be secured. Boulton gives the impression that Blair is closer to where his instincts are, but pet projects are no substitute for achievement for a man who has held executive office.

A History Yet To Be Written

Boulton is hardly one-sided, but the EU Presidency affair has shown the limits of Blair’s powers. There are a whole host of questions still to be asked of Blair’s career, most of which Boulton serves to highlight, rather than answer.

First, what was the ultimate effect of Blair’s announcement that he would not seek a fourth term? Clearly, it put the third term constantly on edge, and much as commentators have tried to resolve the issue, it has never quite been answered.

Secondly, there is a question over Blair’s style. Peter Hennessy is perhaps the foremost historian of British government today, but he has never studied beyond the wasted energies of the first term. Two things stand out from Boulton’s account. Blair was the most presidential of Prime Ministers. He disliked the legislature and sidelined the Cabinet, though he always kept it well-stocked in ‘Big Beasts’. But given the sheer amount of law that made it onto the statute book, was it really the case that New Labour governed poorly?

The answer may lie in Blair’s upper middle-class penchant for self-abasement, so brilliantly captured by the ‘Yo Blair!’ episode. What is no longer remembered is the more important part of the conversation – where Blair offered to sacrifice his credibility in the Middle East to give Condoleeza Rice the opportunity to make a deal. Blair sacrificed an awful lot in his ten years, and failed to cover his core base. Some commentators say Blair killed triangulation, others interpret his whole career in that fashion. Certainly, the last word has yet to be written about the ‘Third Way’.

Another question that seems particularly resonant today is the degree to which New Labour’s naivety impeded its efforts to govern, at least for the first term. Preparation for government has become increasingly crucial as ambitions and bureaucracy grows. New Labour were underprepared when they came to power, and promised more tangible objects than any government before. The result was a plausibility gap.

The other New Labour preoccupation was the media. Boulton is understandably keen to defend his side and in any case, he believes that it was Alistair Campbell’s one-man-war on the press that so discredited Blair.

Memories of the Blair Administration is unsurprisingly journalistic in style. That need not be an insult. As Timothy Garton Ash has observed, journalists and academics like to use each others professions as insults, but interesting facts need to be taken to their full conclusion. There is a lot of history still to be written about the Blair Administration, something that the Iraq War Inquiry is doing as we speak.

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