The Man Who Would Be King: He Holds Cabinet Meetings That Last Half an Hour, and Gives Power to Men Accountable to Nobody but Himself; Tony Blair Is Not a President, He Is a Monarch

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), May 6, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Would Be King: He Holds Cabinet Meetings That Last Half an Hour, and Gives Power to Men Accountable to Nobody but Himself; Tony Blair Is Not a President, He Is a Monarch


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


The fifth anniversary of his accession to power is as good a time as any to ask: what is Tony Blair? His opponents on the left and right have raged against his immorality and hypocrisy, but more telling are the opinions of colleagues who once admired him. For the past few months, Channel 4 has paid me to interview smart but reasonably loyal Labour MPs. All are alarmed. None believes the Prime Minister is a prime minister in the traditional sense of a primus inter pares. Margaret Thatcher felled that notion, and Blair has finished it off.

Like everyone else, I'd accepted the commonplace that cabinet government is dead, but it was nevertheless disconcerting to stand with a camera crew in Downing Street and film ministers shuffling into No 10 for a cabinet meeting and shuffling out after 35 minutes -- barely enough time to pass round the ginger nuts.

Charles Clarke defended Blair's style of government, as the chairman of the Labour Party must, but told me the cabinet was never invited to vote on the direction of government policy. It's not only votes that have been dumped. Roy Hattersley recounted how a minister asked for advice on how to fight back after Downing Street had killed a cherished policy. "Well, it all depends on how much support you have got in the cabinet," said Hattersley. The cabinet member said that the rest of the cabinet hadn't seen the disputed policy paper. "That's your own fault, isn't it?" said Hattersley, "you should have built a coalition". "Oh no," came the reply, "we aren't supposed to circulate papers to cabinet ... it is regarded as trying to undermine the Prime Minister. We are supposed to discuss [policies] one-to-one with the Prime Minister and, when we get his agreement, then the cabinet endorses it."

In these circumstances, it's remarkable that cabinet meetings last five minutes, let alone 35. As for Blair's one-to-ones, they are one-way traffic except when Gordon Brown is in the room. To pick the most glaring instance, Blair ruled the Foreign Office long before 11 September. David Clark, Robin Cook's former special adviser, didn't bother to hide his disgust at what Blair made his Foreign Secretary do between 1997 and 2001. "Blair certainly liked the plaudits from liberal opinion for taking a tough stance on human rights," he told me. "But whenever there was a choice between power politics and ethics, he would invariably choose the former." The example he cited was arms sales to Robert Mugabe. Cook wanted to stop them, but Blair paid more attention to his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, who sees himself, Clark said, as a "realist" and is "dismissive of what he regards as left-wing posturing". The arms went to Zimbabwe and Cook had to defend a policy he opposed because "Robin always took the requirements of collective responsibility seriously, even if Blair didn't". Soon after the sale, Blair condemned Mugabe's election-rigging in his most sincere and anguished voice.

At least the politically literate know who Powell is. I would be surprised if one parent in 10,000 knows of Andrew Adonis, who effectively runs education policy from his office in Downing Street. Every educationalist we spoke to said Adonis was responsible for city academies, specialist schools, bringing private finance into education and the astonishing decision of a government at war against religious fundamentalism abroad to promote religious fundamentalism at home by encouraging faith schools.

His opponents believe Adonis is creating a disastrous three-tier education system that will fail working-class and many middle-class children. Barry Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the Commons education committee, isn't an ideological enemy. On the contrary, he praises Adonis for being a "breath of fresh air" and Blair for being the first prime minister to send his children to state schools. But his belief in Adonis's policies does not stop Sheerman worrying that the "most influential person in education in this country isn't me, the chairman of the select committee, or the Secretary of State for Education", but an obscure wonk who has yet to condescend to be questioned by MPs. …

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