An evening with Tony Blair

1 July 2010

On Monday evening, the Institute for Government and our guests were the first to hear Tony Blair’s reflections on his time in Number 10.

It was a tough first audience made up of many familiar faces who helped shape his experiences as Prime Minister – and who were now busy settling in a new Prime Minister.

He kicked off the evening with a self effacing story of his experience of coming into Number 10 for the first time after winning the 1997 election.

He painted the scene: As the staff of No10 lined up to welcome him in the traditional manner, clapping and so on, he spotted a few tears, not of joy but sadness as so many had worked for so long under the previous government.

“By the time I made to the end of the line, I started to feel pretty bad about it. Then I went in to see the Cabinet Secretary who said ‘now what?’”

The roaring laughter from the audience, largely senior civil servants, showed these first few days for a PM was definitely familiar ground.

It was vintage Tony – informal, disarming and seemingly frank, noting it was on the record.

Blair’s first term

He offered a list of 10 conclusions he had reached about government, but in many ways he got more interesting as he relaxed into the discussion. A recurrent theme was Blair’s conclusion that he was most effective in his later years when he was least popular – a view shared by many of those who worked with him.

Indeed, in a clear suggestion to his successors, Blair now wished it would have been possible to have had private, apolitical discussions with his predecessors about why they concluded what they did on policy

In short, he admitted he had largely wasted his first term, it took them a while to realise that their early prescriptions weren’t up to the job. By the same token he wished he had seen earlier in his term that some issues required a very different and unique policy approach – such as social exclusion.

Some of his warnings were ones that the current government seems to have already heeded. For example, he said the 1997 incoming government viewed the ‘civil service as a Tory plot’.

There’s no doubt that, before the recent election, the opposition parties held a similar view of the civil service as a Labour ‘plot’. But the extended contact with the civil service in the 18 months before the election – curiously as a result of an agreement made by Blair before he left – softened their views.

Similarly, Blair argued that his second term benefited greatly from external expertise, not least from the interchange between the public and private sector – an early feature of the coalition such as strengthening Non-Execs on Department Boards.

Blair and the coalition

The coalition’s scepticism (to date) about Machinery of Government changes also fits with Blair’s eventual conclusions about their effectiveness for government, though he admitted he made many changes before he reached this view.

On other issues Blair’s conclusions sat less comfortably with those of the new Government. Blair repeatedly made reference to the importance to the Delivery Unit (and to its then head, Michael Barber, who was in the audience).

More fundamentally, Blair argued that the kind of systemic reform that was necessary had to be driven from the centre. He also argued that no organisation would spend large amounts of money without specifying what it was trying to achieve – though he did acknowledge that they did end up with too many targets.

This is a very different view from that of the new Government, at least for now.

What makes good politics

Perhaps most striking was Blair’s view that good politics boils down to good policy – to ‘a serious intellectual business’ of conceptual and technical analysis of the problem, and competent and efficient delivery of the solution.

Blair deeply believes that under the ‘ideological wrapping’ of different parties and even countries, there are essentially technical and systemic issues that smart people can work their way through and ultimately would reach a similar conclusion.

Love it or hate it, this post-ideological view of the world is one that may seem strangely familiar when you listen to Cameron and Clegg.

He defended the role of special advisers and stressed the importance of a competent media team.

Advice to future Prime Ministers

His final, practical advice to PMs that follow him echoes that of many senior ex-Ministers – get a grip on your diary and ensure that you have people around you who can really do project management.

And the lack of time to concentrate on policy clearly frustrated him, “Who invented the official dinners – I mean who even enjoys them?” he asked provocatively to an audience who may have arranged a few of these dinners for him – and perhaps are already planning the year ahead for the new PM.

Blair reckoned that, despite the importance he put on it, he spent less than 5% of his time on policy. And when a crisis like foot and mouth came along, it could wipe out most of your time for six months. It’s just part of the job, but somehow you have to find a way to keep the progress on the things you got elected to do.

And on the current fiscal crisis? It was in everyone’s interest that the government succeed.

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