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Unfinished project

Charles Clarke

Published 09 October 2008

Tony's Ten Years: Memories of the Blair Administration
Adam Boulton Simon & Schuster, 384pp, 17.99

Like many other commentators, Adam Boulton turned out to be wrong in his assessment of Peter Mandelson. "Mandelson's career as a Westminster politician effectively came to an end when he was forced to resign from the cabinet for a second time," he writes. Who could predict that anyone could be thrice appointed to the cabinet? Yet the seeds of Mandelson's re-emergence are here in Boulton's perceptive and fast-moving account of the genealogy, behaviour and evolution of new Labour.

For Boulton, there were four founding fathers of new Labour: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Mandelson and Philip Gould. They were supported by Roger Liddle and Anji Hunter (now Boulton's wife) and joined only later by Alastair Campbell. From shortly after the 1987 general election defeat, they talked and planned their way towards winning power for Labour.

The group was generally loyal to the then Labour party leader, Neil Kinnock (though with some wobbles). The quartet didn't (except for Brown) have much faith in John Smith's capacity to win power, and they kept themselves inward-looking and exclusive.

For a good few years, things went well. There was a short frisson about whether one of them should run for the deputy leadership after Kinnock and Roy Hattersley resigned in 1992. But it was only with the sudden death of John Smith, in 1994, that personal ambition began to divide them.

Boulton describes how Blair was determined to put his name forward to lead the party, how he was widely believed to be the obvious candidate, how Brown found that difficult to accept, how Mandelson's opinion shifted to support Blair and how the Granita conversation set the terms for the future relationship between Blair and Brown. Indeed, his account of the Granita dinner is the most perceptive I have read.

Boulton shares my own view that it would have been better for Blair to stand against Brown and beat him. He argues that "it is difficult to see how the senses of entitlement and grievance could have taken such poisonous hold in the breast of Brown and his supporters" had Blair done so. That I expressed this publicly in 1995 was a recurrent source of tension.

Boulton has been an inscrutable presence on the edge of politics, watchful and perceptive. As political editor of Sky News, he offers sharp and (usually) accurate observations on the complex and passionate relationship between Blair, Brown and sometimes Mandelson. Above all, he is right that "the corrosive dynamic of [Blair's] rivalry with Gordon Brown meant that Blair always lived politically under the shadow of 'how long?'".

This story might reasonably have been expected to conclude with Blair's decision to endorse Brown rather than encourage a leadership election in 2007. But the mutual loyalty of the new Labour founders has persisted, its latest and most surprising manifestation appearing in Brown's invitation to Mandelson to join the cabinet, apparently with the explicit sanction of Blair. And naturally "new Labour" has been one of the very biggest successes in British politics. New Labour has an extraordinarily good story to tell and it hasn't yet ended.

Boulton outlines much of this extremely well, with a great deal of background colour and insightful assessment of the participants, even if his "facts" are not always right. For example, the assertion that Tony Blair gave me a "near promise" that I would eventually be made foreign secretary when I was appointed home secretary is simply not true. When Blair asked me to go back to the Home Office after the 2005 election, I told him that I needed at least four more years to reform the place. Uncomfortable things would be uncovered along the way, I said, and we would need to stand firm when this happened. He agreed, and there was never any mention of the Foreign Office. If there had been, it would have made no difference.

Boulton expresses his own opinions freely. His discussions of the political/media relationships and "spin" are rather less balanced than the rest of the book, probably because he is understandably passionate about the role of the media. Distortions, such as Bush's "Yo, Blair" moment or Andrew Gilligan's Today programme report, get too much sympathy for my taste.

He is stronger on international affairs than domestic policy, with a particularly powerful emphasis on the military conflicts. Although some will disagree with his conclusions on Iraq, the story is well told.

Boulton prints in full Blair's final resignation speech at Sedgefield on 10 May 2007. I think that he is wrong to say that "the Sedgefield speech was an admission of failure". On the contrary, it set out a great record of political, social and economic change of which Blair and new Labour can justly be proud.

However, historians will certainly ask whether the record could have been better and there is little doubt that it could have been. If the new Labour team had been able to act in harmony throughout the decade of Blair's premiership new Labour would have been better able both to broaden the party's support and honestly to address its failures.

Boulton states that "to his admirers Blair's third term, his final two years in office, were his best . . . He was able to drive through decisions he believed in and to dragoon Gordon Brown into supporting them." His main examples are pension reform, renewal of Trident, new nuclear power stations, splitting of the Home Office and continued British military deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But this list was inadequate. It reflected the past and did not offer any future prospectus to the British people. That future offer needed to be prepared in the six months before the 2005 general election. The first years of the current parliament could and should have been focused on setting out and implementing Labour's ambitions for the country. This should have included facing up to some of the complicated problems, such as Lords reform or housing finance, which had had to be postponed because of their political difficulty. It was vital that the party's third term be the expression of Labour's own vision for the future, based on its own values. We needed to move on from simply remedying the failures we had inherited from the Conservatives in 1997.

Unfortunately, however, Blair's decision at the end of the 2004 party conference to "preannounce" his departure as prime minister meant his final two and a half years were taken up with political wrangling about the succession and the timing of his departure. The book has an interesting account of the so-called coup against Blair in September 2006.

Blair's failure to use his authority and power to prepare Labour's future policies, people and programme remains the aspect of his legacy that is most damaging, whatever the mitigations. Adam Boulton's book exposes the reasons why that happened. Yet it is not too late. Labour can still set out its prospectus for the future; there is no time to waste.

Charles Clarke is MP for Norwich South and a former home secretary (2004-2006)

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