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The Blair Government in Historical Perspective

In his recent Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture to the Royal Historical Society, Peter Hennessy analyses the power relationships within New Labour

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.

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