THE WEEKS BEFORE and after the general election of June 2001 were revealing of the way Tony Blair saw his first term. At the last Cabinet meeting before the contest, he warned ministers not to expect an easy time when they returned. Despite the 167-seat margin of victory, Blair did not return to No.10 with any overt signs that, in Disraeli's phrase in Tancred,`[a] majority is always the best repartee'. Quite the reverse.
Broadcaster Jim Naughtie caught this well in his study of Blair and Brown, The Rivals (2001): `Euphoria had been banned at the moment of victory. Any repeat of the 1997 frolics at the Royal Festival Hall risked looking arrogant ... Behind the controlled facade ... the feeling that was struggling to find a way out was one of ... deep frustration. Blair was impatient with his Cabinet and with Whitehall, and Brown was impatient with Blair.'
It had been rather a scratchy year for the Prime Minister. One of Blair's more endearing characteristics is his willingness to talk publicly about the human side of his job -- a capacity to acknowledge anxiety which is rare amongst top politicians. In the spring of 2000, he had agreed that most political lives ended in failure. Why? `It's because the public is always encouraged to be cynical about people. And ... in the end ... whatever the expectations are, you can't meet all of them.' Blair is a command and control premier with a sense of political mortality.
That sense, I suspect, had been his dominant emotion for a few fraught days in September 2000, when a curious coalition of the semi-organised effectively closed down much of the UK's oil and petrol distribution system. From the morning of September 12th, when the Prime Minister was warned by the Cabinet Office that `he situation is near breaking point', an autumn of fretfulness began to afflict the government. None of those around the Prime Minister knew what the petrol scare meant. The normally phlegmatic Jack Straw declared privately: `This is our poll tax'.
The problem had arisen partly because Whitehall's capacity for contingency planning had been dispersed beyond the Cabinet Office into several departments and allowed to lose its sharpness. Top civil servants Sir Richard Wilson and Sir David Omand set about reviewing this in the wake of `petrol September', only for its shortcomings to be shown up in still more acute fashion when Foot and Mouth began to bite in late February 2001.
It looked briefly as if the events of September 2000 had fuelled a mini-revival of collective government. `There is more challenge to the PM,' an insider explained; `they realise that they are not going to win an election just on his face.' This impression of mildly waxing collegiality was reinforced by two other factors. As the preoccupation with winning a second term grew, there appeared a little more space at the centre in which the career civil servants could operate. This included the Prime Minister's Department-that-will-not-speak-its-name, as the regulars in the No. 10 Private Office began to take over more of the day-to-day running of business from the special advisers. Secondly, there was a small burst of Cabinet committee activity, though a Cabinet minister privately said in October 2000 that greater collegiality was not apparent on Thursday mornings -- the full Cabinet could neither tackle difficult issues on which there might be disagreement nor go on much beyond an hour for fear of the press reporting splits.
This preoccupation with the media's obsession for personality stories has, in the view of another Cabinet minister, stymied what might have been a natural growth in collegiality as ministers became more experienced. But a senior Whitehall figure thought a more profound factor had been at work: `The PM doesn't like argument. Cabinet these days is just a series of self-congratulatory remarks.'
When Jim Callaghan saw Blair in the early months of his premiership he urged the Prime Minister to find about six really good ministers on whom he could rely. …