Why would anyone want to listen to Tony Blair, the man who ran government from his prime ministerial sofa and therefore made decisions with which all right-thinking people disagree? Well, you might ask David “Heir to Blair” Cameron, or Ed Miliband, who speaks to the Labour former leader more often than you might think, or Nick Clegg’s advisers, who look to Blair’s memoir for guidance. Or to the 20 presidents and prime ministers around the world who are advised by Blair and his team of consultants.
Blair came to the Mile End Group at Queen Mary University of London this week to explain himself. The title of the seminar was “How Government Really Works”, and he set out two points which he thought were overlooked by academic and journalistic commentary. One was what he called “a gene-pool problem with modern politics”, namely the quality of people available for public office in Western democracies. He had been asked a question by Matt Forde – a comedian who confounds all expectations by being also a Blairite: “What hope is there of the Labour Party having a leader that won’t be a former special adviser, in the next 10 or 15 years?”
The part of Blair’s reply that attracted most attention was this: “I advise any young person who wants to go into politics today: go and spend some time out of politics.” Despite his prefacing this with “I support Ed’s leadership and I support what he’s doing”, this was reported by the Daily Telegraph as “Blair took a swipe at modern MPs like Ed Miliband”.
The Daily Mail yesterday managed to go one better and report it as an attack on himself, saying that this was “not advice he followed: he was hunting for a parliamentary seat while still in legal training”. This is not so. He secured tenancy as a barrister in 1977 and started trying to be selected three years later; he succeeded and was elected after six years. (And we wonder why Blair has a problem with parts of the media. Even so, on Monday he restrained himself, twice refusing to comment on the question of press regulation.)
As so often, though, Blair is better at setting out the problem than at providing the solution. He has complained that he had to get “really good people” such as Andrew Adonis to be ministers through the House of Lords, and he has looked enviously at the American system where a president appoints any US citizen to his cabinet, allegedly on merit.
But Blair partly had himself to blame for failing to identify and promote talent early on. Indeed, I asked him if he regretted that he hadn’t brought on anyone who could even stand against Gordon Brown in a leadership contest when the vacancy arose. He said that was not something that it would have been “sensible for me to try to engineer”, but that is not a full defence of his poor human-resources management.
Blair’s second point was more substantial, which was how politicians can deliver the changes that people think they have been elected to deliver. On this, I thought Blair was too hard on his early period. He said how much he had learned as Prime Minister, and said that he had been “shocked” by how much he had learned since he left No 10. It was almost as if he were saying that he was now ready to be Prime Minister.
Actually, he achieved some remarkable things early on – not so much in public service reform, but in valuable constitutional change. Northern Ireland, London government, devolution to Scotland, the start of Lords reform and not having a referendum on adopting the euro. Each of those could have driven the Government off course; in each case this was avoided by rigorous preparation – in many cases by Derry Irvine, the unsung hero of New Labour’s first term.
It took time, though, to work out how to deliver change in the way government delivers services. And, however much it suited Gordon Brown and David Cameron to distance themselves from Blair for internal party reasons, they ended up replicating the policies and mechanisms of The Master.
It was interesting that the only policy Blair mentioned when he was asked to identify Blairism was academy schools – although we should also note that he disowned the label with typical aw-shucks arrogant modesty: “I mean, look, it’s not particularly connected with me.” Academies were one Blairite reform that Brown picked up with enthusiasm and even intensified; they were then taken up with even more enthusiasm by the Coalition.
They are an important example of “deliverology”. The model is quite different from the classic assumption of government, namely that Whitehall departments pass laws and issue instructions. Instead, academies are enabled by activist ministers and civil servants driving up quality, at first, school by school and, later, academy chain by academy chain.
And it was notable that Cameron, in particular, has replicated Blair’s mechanisms for delivery. Despite criticising Labour’s “top-down targets” in health and education, Coalition ministers have mostly kept them, renamed as “benchmarks” or other euphemisms.
One of the most successful devices, the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, which was neutered by Brown in 2005, has been resurrected as the Implementation Unit. One mandarin told me “although it is different it is sort of the same”. When Blair was in Romania last month, Victor Ponta, the prime minister, said, “We only discussed one matter, namely the setting up of a new government entity to be in charge of such projects that the government considers as priorities, following a pattern used in the UK during Tony Blair’s term in office.”
This intersects with the “gene pool problem” in that, as Blair said, “in what other walk of life do you put someone in charge of billions and billions of pounds’ worth of spending with no training?” Again, it may be, as Blair said, “a bit weird”, but it is not obvious what you do about it. Gus O’Donnell, Blair’s final Cabinet Secretary, who was at the Mile End Group, got into trouble on this last week when his musings on this subject were interpreted as the Civil Service wanting to impose qualification requirements on who should and should not be allowed to stand as an MP.
These are the sorts of questions that ought to worry governments around the world. And some of the solutions might seem rather obvious, but it takes someone from outside to point them out. In another interview this week, Blair told of his work for an African president. His team asked the president to list his priorities, and he listed six of them; but when the team analysed how he used his time, they found that he devoted only 4 per cent of it to those six subjects.
If we are going to have ex-prime ministers hanging around in their late 50s and early 60s, it makes sense for them to try to help others to learn as much as they can from a systematic understanding of what worked and what didn’t about their time in office.
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday and visiting professor in contemporary history at Queen Mary University of London.