Labour won an unprecedented three consecutive election victories. Political commentators talked of ‘a fundamental realignment of British politics’. Yet many of Blair’s promises and policies remained unfulfilled. Reform of the public services was patchy and aroused opposition. Constitutional reform stuttered and stalled. Blair’s hopes of building a new consensus were badly damaged by an unpopular war in Iraq and by his close links to the even more unpopular George W. Bush.
By 2007, the Conservatives were starting to come back from the political dead and many Labour supporters were demanding a return to traditional Labour values.
Blair could rely on a huge majority in parliament. The Labour Party appeared more united than at any time since 1945. Blair led a group of talented politicians, who had spent three years preparing for power and had a clear sense of direction in carrying through what they called the ‘Blair Project’. The Conservative opposition was demoralised. The economic situation was favourable. Press coverage, even from traditionally Conservative newspapers, was positive. The new government basked in the glow of almost universal public goodwill.
However, the massive parliamentary majority did not reflect a massive surge in the Labour vote. Although 43 per cent of the votes were cast for Labour, this was a share of a low turnout. Fewer people voted for Labour in 1997 than in any of the elections between 1945 and 1966; the Labour vote in 1997 was 500,000 less than Major’s Conservatives had received in 1992. The 1997 ‘landslide’ was based on factors such as Tory voters staying at home, tactical voting for Liberal candidates and the peculiar distortions that can arise from Britain’s winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post electoral system.
The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, spoke about ‘foreign policy with an ethical dimension’. The government promised to be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. They promised to push through reforms in education: the slogan ‘Education, education, education’ became almost the signature tune of the government. Tony Blair promised to make his government a ‘big tent’ that would have room for people from outside the Labour Party. It was rumoured that Blair might give a cabinet post to the Liberal leader, Paddy Ashdown. There was a commitment to work with the Liberal Democrats on a fairer voting system, with Roy Jenkins at the head of a Commission for Electoral Reform.
Blair’s first Labour government was very well prepared for power but did not achieve nearly as much as had been promised. Blair admitted his own sense of frustration at the unfulfilled hopes of 1997. One explanation is that there were simply too many promises, not enough delivery. Blair’s favoured explanation is that the government acted too cautiously, with too much fear of the popular press. Many Labour MPs had been in opposition so long they still thought like the opposition. A third explanation might be the obsession with focus groups, opinion polls and ‘spin’. Blair has been accused of reacting to events with instant soundbites, rather than following a consistent long-term strategy.
On the other hand, Blair aimed to be the first Labour prime minister ever to win a second full term in office; at no time did he look like failing to achieve this. He was extremely skilful in massaging public opinion, always persuasive in his appearances on television. In August 1997, when the nation was in shock after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in Paris, the Prime Minister’s statements about ‘the People’s Princess’ showed a typically sure grasp of the public mood. Cabinet ministers like Robin Cook and David Blunkett were also skilful media performers. Few governments have overshadowed the opposition as completely as New Labour did throughout its first term.
Blair’s government could also claim three substantial achievements: in the economy, in Northern Ireland and in foreign policy. Gordon Brown’s decision to hand over decisions on interest rates and inflation targets to the Bank of England was regard by many as a masterstroke. Inflation was coming down and employment was going up. The living standards of the middle classes were rising, partly because of the housing boom.
The successful outcome of the peace process in Northern Ireland in 1998 was a personal triumph for the Prime minister, who devoted most of his first year in power to the detailed, hands-on involvement in the negotiations. The peace process had been pushed forward a long way before Blair arrived; there were many important factors behind the Good Friday Agreement signed in Belfast in April 1998 apart from Blair’s contribution. His personal commitment was, however, vital.
John Hume of the SDLP had already persuaded the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, to commit to a peace plan. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, had much success bringing together the loyalist and republican paramilitaries. President Clinton’s special envoy, Senator George Mitchell, was a superb mediator. Blair himself developed a close working relationship with the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, a vital factor in reassuring David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists during the tense final negotiations.
Even after the Good Friday Agreement was made, it was still possible it might come unstuck, for example when thirty people were killed in a terrible bomb attack on Omagh. Throughout his first term and all the way to 2007, Blair remained closely involved in the difficult task of moving the two sides closer towards implementing a final peace settlement. Many people regarded Northern Ireland as his greatest single achievement. In 1999, Blair was also widely praised for his part in persuading the United States to support NATO intervention in Kosovo.
The movement towards peace and a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland was part of a wide range of constitutional changes, including devolution in Scotland and Wales. A new Scottish Assembly was established at Edinburgh, based on a system of proportional representation. A Welsh Assembly was set up in Cardiff though without tax-raising powers. Another reform was the introduction of an elected mayor for London in 1999. The government made a major political effort to reform the House of Lords; it ended with a rather messy compromise in which hereditary peers were not abolished but cut to 92. A Freedom of Information Act was passed and the European Human Rights Act was incorporated into British law.
In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) continued to gain support when it had been hoped devolution would take away their momentum. The House of Lords reform was seen as unsatisfactory by almost everyone. Schemes to reform the electoral system got nowhere and were shelves. The mayor of London proved to be very successful, but the mayor who won the election was Ken Livingstone, the left-wing maverick who had led the GLC in the 1980s and just about the last person Tony Blair wanted to get the job. The way judges interpreted the Human Rights Act created unexpected difficulties for the government.
Blair himself was disappointed by the failures including the slow progress of reforms to the public services. In January 2001, he showed this frustration by promising a massive increase in public spending, especially on health, and a more urgent approach to forcing reforms through. The fact that he set up a special delivery unit in July 2001 to ensure this showed that he was unhappy with the delivery of policies since 1997. He intended to be much more radical once the 2001 election was safely won.
####Labour’s continuing electoral success in 2001 and 2005
Many people believed that New Labour had achieved less than it should have done by 2011. Victory was achieved in 2005 even though the Prime Minister’s personal popularity had taken a hammering after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Success in 2001 came relatively easily. Blair’s personal standing in the country was high. Labour was still able to rely on the support of sections of the national press that had traditionally been pro-Conservative. The continuing high levels of support for the Liberal Democrats (who gained their highest number of seats in parliament any third party had had since the 1930s) damaged the prospects of the Conservatives more than Labour. The economic situation remained good, especially for the middle classes.
By Blair’s second term in office, the government had lost several leading performers. Mandelson and Blunkett had been forced to resign by scandals; Cook resigned in protest against the Iraq war; Clarke had to resign as home secretary because of the embarrassment when prisoners awaiting deportation escaped from custody and could not be traced. The rivalry between Blairites and Brownites was starting to arouse intense press speculation. The Labour government might well have been in deep trouble but for the fact that the Conservative opposition was still desperately weak and ineffective.
After his defeat in 1997, Major instantly resigned as Conservative leader. Conservative divisions on Europe remained. So did the bitter recriminations against those who had ‘betrayed Maggie’.
From 1997 until 2005, through two more election defeats and four changes of party leader, the Conservative Party continued to fight its ‘civil war’. The party had apparently completely lost what the historian John Ramsden calls its ‘appetite for power’. So many Conservative MPs had lost their seats or retired at the 1997 election that William Hague’s party was only half the size of the party that had chosen Major in 1990. The party was also more Eurosceptic than before, and two prime candidates, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke, faced hostility from the Right. Another possible candidate, Michael Portillo, was temporarily no longer an MP.
There was more negative campaigning to ‘stop Heseltine’ or to ‘stop Clarke’ than any desire to rally round a candidate with the potential to win a future election. The new leader was Hague, a 36-year-old with limited political experience and no power base in the party. Hague won because he had fewer enemies than his better-known rivals and because he was Thatcher’s preferred choice. Thatcher’s high-profile support did Hague little good, as it highlighted his inexperience and lessened his authority. Hague attempted, at least at first, to make Conservative policies more socially inclusive. He was not able to carry this through, however, because right-wingers were obsessed with infighting and with promoting policies that had already proved unpopular with voters.
By 2001, Hague had retreated to right-wing policy positions designed to shore up the Conservative core vote: ‘the fight to save the pound’ and a hardline against immigration. This may have prevented some Conservative voters from right drifting to UKIP or the British National Party (BNP) but did nothing to appeal to the middle ground. The outcome was another crushing defeat. Many observers pointed out that the average age of the party membership was 63. The Conservative Party faced a steep decline unless it underwent drastic change but the party was not yet ready to change.
‘The whole situation in the Conservative Party today springs from that night when they dismissed the best Prime minister Britain had had since Churchill’ - Denis Thatcher, 2005.
In 2005, the Conservatives suffered a third successive defeat, though probably by a lesser margin than if Iain Duncan Smith had remained as leader. However, unlike with the previous defeats, the Conservatives decided to learn the lessons of defeat and to make the changes necessary to win over the voters. This time, the party’s choice was David Cameron, who promoted the image of the Conservatives as a rejuvenated, united party, more representative of the country as a whole and no longer obsessed with the past.
The Labour Party found it more difficult to attack Cameron than his predecessors. Accusing him of being ‘smooth but superficial’ was a problem because of his apparent similarities to Blair. Dismissing Cameron as a ‘Tory toff’ seemed out-of-tune with New Labour claims to have made Britain a classless society. Labour attacked Cameron for making vague promises without spelling out the costs and policy details, but that was exactly the method New Labour had used from 1994. For the first time since 1997, the Conservatives seemed to offer a credible alternative.
By the time Blair left office in 2007, Cameron’s Conservative Party had recovered much of the ground lost since 1992. Restless right-wingers were reluctant to follow the more socially liberal line set by Cameron but many traditional Conservative supporters seemed ready to switch back to the party, turning away from fringe parties like UKIP. Opinion polls suggested many seats lost to the Liberals in 1997 were likely to be won back next time.
The Iraq War aroused bitter opposition to Blair, often from those who had previously been enthusiastic supporters. The whole pattern of domestic politics was shaped by the controversies over Iraq and the so-called ‘war on terror’.
The shocking events of 11 September 2001 had a huge impact on Blair’s thinking. He was convinced that global terrorism was a deadly danger and that special measures were needed to provide people with greater security. Increasingly, this brought him into conflict with people concerned to protect civil liberties. Blair’s close links to George W. Bush became a domestic policy issue because of the intense hostility to Bush in Britain and Europe. Thus, Blair had to fight two wars over Iraq, one against Saddam Hussein and the other to win over political and public opinion at home.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, resigned in protest, followed by the Overseas Development Minister, Clare Short. Many people were opposed in principle to the war and argued that it would be an illegal war without full backing from the United Nations. Public opinion polls showed most people in support of Blair but with a large and vocal minority who did not believe war was either necessary or morally justified.
In September 2002, an intelligence dossier was published to show the urgent danger from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including nuclear and biological weapons. The dossier backfired. It failed to convince those who thought the threat from WMD was overrated. People questioned why Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, had a key role in drafting the dossier. There were accusations that the dossier was about political presentation than hard intelligence. In May 2003, claims by the journalist Andrew Gillian that the dossier had been ‘sexed up’ for political purposes caused a sensation.
There were no WMD. Blair’s opponents claimed that this proved deliberate deception, that ‘Bliar’ had consistently lied in pursuit of his warmongering policies. Blair genuinely believed in the WMD evidence and so did many of the intelligence community, but it was widely asserted. The tragic death by suicide of the scientist David Kelly further damaged the government’s reputation. An enquiry chaired by Lord Hutton into the circumstances of his death eventually absolved the government from blame but did little to alter the public mood of cynicism and condemnation.
While Saddam was quickly overthrown, the war did no end neatly. British and American forced became bogged down in a war of occupation. The government was blamed by its many critics for human rights abuses by British and American soldiers. The security situation eventually began to improve in 2006 and there were hopes that troops could start coming home; but the unpopularity of the war remained a powerful political factor right to the end of Blair’s time in office.
In the first few years of the Labour government, the economic policies directed by Gordon Brown were mostly cautious. The priorities were to keep inflation low, to keep government spending under control and to prove to Middle England that Labour was pro-business. All this was achieved, partly because Labour had inherited very favourable economic circumstances. During Blair’s first term, Labour’s handling of the economy proved immensely reassuring to industrialists and financiers and to the middle classes. Gordon Brown’s tax policies enabled Labour to get away from its previous image as a ‘tax-and-spend’ party. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party had, at least temporarily, completely lost its former reputation as the ‘party of economic competence’.
From the 2001 election on, however, Brown’s policies became more adventurous, with a massive injection of money into the public services. The big increases in investment were reflected in new schools and hospitals and pay rises for doctors, nurses and teachers. Labour claimed credit for catching up after years of neglect. Critics argued that public spending and government borrowing were too high. There was also criticism of the funding of new projects through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) using the private sector. The buildings usually got completed quickly but large debts were stored up for the future. Inflation was kept under control and record numbers of people were in work. Living standards remained high and the consumer economy boomed. Conversely, economists such as Will Hutton warned that the consumer boom was based on ever-rising house prices and on high levels of credit card spending and personal debt. There was a danger that the ‘bubble’ of middle class prosperity might not last.
Opposition to Blair over Iraq was still strong. Blair’s long honeymoon with the national press was beginning to lose its glow. The ‘cash for honours’ scandal, involving accusations that Labour fund-raisers had promised the award of honours to people making large donations to the Labour Party, was looming. Many were yearning for a return to traditional ‘Old Labour’ values. There was increasing speculation that, if Blair did not choose to go soon, his own party would mount a coup against him.
Blarite loyalists pressured the Prime Minister to remain, in order to give time for his reform agenda to work through and to protect new Labour’s legacy. ‘My final two years have probably been the most productive’, he said after stepping down. Blair’s position had weakened. By 2007, many leading Labour politicians such as Robin Cook, Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett had left the government. The previously effective political partnership between Blair and Brown was breaking down.
Although the so-called ‘September coup’ against Blair never happened, the speculation prompted him to state at the party conference a few weeks later that he would step don within a year. Perhaps feeling liberated from all the uncertainty, Blair started out on a furious round of activity both at home and abroad, determined to make the most of the Blair legacy. He finally resigned as Prime minister in June 2007 and made it clear he would also be resigning as an MP. Gordon Brown was elected unopposed as Blair’s successor.
‘Blair made government more centralised but less effective. In the end, he left the voters dissatisfied’ - Simon Jenkins in The Times.
In Blair’s final appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions, June 2007, he spoke of ‘ten years of achievements’, ‘economic stability through the independence of the Bank of England; record investment in our public services; better maternity leave and maternity pay; support for pensions; repeal of Section 28; a ban on tobacco advertising and of course, the minimum wage’.
He won three elections, the greatest success ever by a Labour Prime minister.
There was sustained economic prosperity and economic stability.
He dominated British politics and forced the Conservative Party to undergo radical change.
He achieved a historic peace settlement in Northern Ireland.
He played an important leadership role in Europe.
He gave a strong lead in the ‘war against terror’, especially after 7/7/2005.
He was a world statesman, giving a strong lead on issues like Africa and climate change.
His policy of ‘liberal interventionism’ helped bring stability to the Balkans.
He achieved less in power than he could have done.
Blair and Brown were lucky to inherit a favourable situation in 1997; and the government debt was high by 2007.
He alienated many traditional Labour voters by moving away from Labour principles and being too pro-business.
His later attempts to mediate peace in the Middle East failed. Ceding to influence from Gordon Brown and the national press.
His drive for identity cards and greater powers for the police undermined civil liberties.
His strengths were in presentation - the practical results did not match up.
The invasion of Iraq was a disastrous error.