Can Blair Survive?

Discussion led by Geoffrey Catchpole

29 January 2004

A discussion opened with a limitation to domestic rather than foreign affairs and a review of the background situation. After many years of Conservative government, New Labour under Tony Blair, with Gordon Brown as chief lieutenant, came into office in 1997. During the first administration Conservative commitments were broadly kept, but promises for basic social service reforms were made. During the second administration Blair has enjoyed a large Parliamentary majority, a weak Opposition and a healthy Treasury, which enabled a start to be made to the promised reforms. Some successes were registered through announcements on fundings, the economy continued to be supportive and ‘full employment’ was attained. Old Labour and the trade unions were quiescent and wage increases were restrained. Constitutional reforms were begun, involving devolution, the structure of local government, the House of Lords and the legal system, etc. Recently, controversial policies on the Iraq war, foundation hospitals and higher education were eventually secured. Although no solution had been found in Northern Ireland, a cease-fire had held. There were complaints about the politicization of civil servants and the undue influence of advisors and both Alistair Campbell and several Ministers had to go, but Blair nevertheless retained his personal popularity and has survived to date.

By January 2004, however, Blair’s survival was publicly in question. The public was unconvinced that his reforms were promoting public welfare and that the decision to go to war was justified. In the week of the discussion commentators suggested that the Hutton Report would reflect upon Blair’s personal integrity and Parliament was divided on both that and upon the ‘top-up’ fees issue. After Blair won, critics claimed that a marginal win on the fees issue was obtained only through Brown’s intervention and that Hutton’s terms of reference had been drawn too narrowly, so that his report was a ‘whitewash’ for the government. Early in that week a Times journalist had forecast that the Hutton Report would reveal ‘government by sofa’, weak lines of responsibility and the Prime Minister’s inadequacies with respect to tactics and organization.

Upon the basis of that review of the background the discussion developed. It was suggested that the economy could be upset through global changes, higher interest rates, union activities, unanticipated costs of postwar reconstruction and defence expenditure, etc. with consequences for taxation and employment which would seriously disenchant voters. Additionally, there is now increasing concern over local taxation and pensions shortfalls.

One question asked was: ‘Is Blair delivering the sort of policies that one would expect from a Labour Government?’ The question of Blair’s long-term aims in a third term of office was raised.

What exactly is meant by ‘modernisation’ and is a mixed economy an end or a means to what ends?

A newspaper produced at the time of the 1997 election was considered in the light of subsequent events and one person, discussing a perceived decline in concern for ecological issues, suggested that Blair had ‘lost direction’. Another observed that ‘managerial government’ with ‘proper planning’ is now seen to be ‘falling away’ – viz. over-hasty Lords reform and ‘knee-jerk reactions’ to the reaction to ‘top-up’ fees. During the discussion week Lord Rees-Mogg had declared in the Times that ‘Blairism is dead; new Labour is dead; modernization is dead ‘.

It was acknowledged that fundamental reforms may require several terms of office to achieve noticeable results, but the media is always ready to pounce upon observed failures and one example was the transport situation, still a ‘mess’. Health and education reforms remain in question and it was thought doubtful that a persuasive list of achievements could be presented at the next election. All governments face the problem of setting a pace for reform – slowness promotes disillusion and speed promotes inefficiency and confusion. The present administration appears to be suffering from both disadvantages in various policies.

An extended discussion developed on the nature of Blair’s leadership and the problems of modern government. Is Blair a team leader or simply an autocratic ‘presidential’ leader? Because modern government ranges so widely a leader cannot now be expected to interface with every political lieutenant, let alone executives, but there is organizational responsibility- as required for example in the BBC organization, of comparable complexity. Misuse of delegated powers within such large organizations will always raise problems and must be faced by those in nominal control. It was suggested that in order to secure optimal governmental performance a national government, chosen on merit, would serve us better that the present system, which often delivers nonentities to power, but it was conceded that although acceptable in times of observed crisis, in normal times it was unlikely.

Leaders have to judge which factions within their own parties and the electorate require their attention and support, if they are to retain leadership. Despite managerial training undertaken by the then Opposition prior to 1997, casual ‘government by sofa’ seems now to represent government style and the Cabinet is apparently used for convenience only. As more Ministers are appointed, policy practically falls to ‘cabals’ or ‘inner cabinets’. Similarly, in local government a small group, rather than larger more unwieldy councils, make policy. It was suggested, however, that Blair feels it necessary to take decisions personally, because he lacks confidence in those nominally collectively responsible for policy-making. Consequently, much of his time and energy was being expended unnecessarily, which could critically affect his health and therefore his political survival.

When there is a weak Opposition, the Lords tend to serve that function (irrespective of party), through their review of hastily proposed legislation by an overworked Commons, but in the current situation there does not appear to be the necessary ‘vision’ for productive reform. The appointed chamber proposed by Blair to date might ‘make things easier’ for his government, but the constitutional function of the second chamber would be weakened.

The concluding discussion focused again on the question of Blair’s political survival. It was agreed that loss of direction is common to all governments in power for several administrations and that Blair continued to retain popularity, despite increasing popular misgivings. An Opposition would have to be well organized and impressive to oust a sitting government, given public conservatism, unless an overall situation deteriorated so radically that change was inevitable. Global economic and political factors today largely determine political possibilities, but full employment and a favourable economic situation tend to preserve governments. ‘Knowledge-based economies’ are being sought all round the developed world and higher-education policies are now seen as crucial, but political reactions may be confused, since electorates have conflicts of values – ‘earning a living’ and ‘living’ per se may well be seen to be irreconcilable by some. Questions on who should bear financial burdens will continue to generate controversies, but at present the ‘third way’ presented by Blair still seems to be generally acceptable.

Much may depend upon perceptions of any successor to Blair as Prime Minister. Doubts were expressed on the qualities of Gordon Brown, seen as both untested and uncharismatic, while no other senior party member was seen as a likely successor. Doubts were also expressed on both the qualities of Opposition leaders and the noteworthiness of their party elites. The consensus of views was that the Labour Party will be returned at the next election with a smaller majority (which would be healthier politically) and that Blair will remain Prime Minister at least for a time within the next administration if his health permits that.

Geoffrey Catchpole