David Blunkett's diaries are everywhere, serialised in two newspapers and the subject of a peak-time programme on Channel Four tonight. Probably before long they will be star billing at a cinema near you and turned into a Broadway musical.
Yet they seem more important than they really are. The main headline from the diaries is that Blunkett felt depressed after losing his job twice. This is hardly surprising. The second headline is that, in Blunkett's view, Tony Blair might have sacked Gordon Brown if the war against Iraq had been a triumph and Brown refused to be more supportive. Note the speculative qualifications in that convoluted observation.
Still, the publishers, broadcasters and writers of musicals can relax. The lack of fresh revelations is, in itself, revelatory. Here are the accounts of someone who was a senior cabinet minister in pivotal departments and a prime ministerial favourite. Yet apart from the sections about Blunkett's traumatic relationship with the media, they read more like the reflections of an observer rather than a titanic participant.
Blunkett was a member of the war cabinet during the invasion of Iraq. According to the diary, he posed a few intelligently probing questions on military strategy and the planning for the aftermath. Apparently, the questions were not answered satisfactorily, and that was the end of the matter.
The diaries suggest that during the rest of the build-up to war Blunkett expressed concerns about the pressures on Blair and was unquestioningly loyal to his leader. He could not bear to hear Robin Cook make his resignation speech, as "hearing our backbenchers clapping would be the last straw". He had lunch with the chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, in which they discussed the possibility of Cook being sent abroad somewhere. That was the limit of cabinet government in the build-up to war: "Exile Cook for expressing doubts we privately share!"
Blunkett's reflections on the possibility of Brown being sacked are more revealing. Again, these are not the contributions of a figure shaping events, but an outsider with a privileged seat at the theatre. Even when Blunkett thinks more politically, he does so fearfully. A later entry reveals he wrote a note to Blair early in the third term, expressing concern that the Government had lost its radical edge. This was the equivalent of an employee telling a boss during an annual report that the workers needed to be more productive.
He was writing a memo knowing that Blair would agree with the contents. Blair was obsessed about the need to be radical, or the need to be seen as radical, a different matter. Blunkett is capable of distinctive and deep political thinking, but that was not his role as a cabinet minister.
Oddly, Robin Cook's diaries confirm the pattern of ministerial passivity. They are far more damning than Blunkett's, recording more explicitly the blunders and delusions in the run-up to the war. Although Cook will go down in history as the cabinet minister who dared to be right about Iraq, his diaries are also curiously passive. He is alarmed by what he sees and yet he does not attempt to change the fatal course that Blair is set upon pursuing. His resignation was nobly principled but, in practical terms, little more than an act of impotent protestation.
The subtext of the diaries is that Blair will get his way, so Cook must resign. At no point does Cook contemplate joining forces with the other ardent dissenter, Clare Short, in an attempt to hold back Blair. A well-timed joint resignation might have had a more dramatic impact.
After his resignation, Cook told me he regretted not holding talks with other cabinet ministers who voiced doubts. There was an assumption in Cabinet that Blair got what he wanted and their job was to clear the path. Cook got out of the way by resigning.
Nothing has changed. When the Cabinet met after the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in July, the Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, became a news story for daring to challenge Blair about the British strategy. Some of Miliband's friends tell me he was genuinely surprised that at a time when Blair's approach was a source of seething debate around the country, no one in the Cabinet was planning to raise the issue. He was a news story because he was alone.
The contrast with previous cabinets is stark. Labour's chroniclers in the 1960s and 1970s, Crossman, Castle and Benn, were participants as well as observers. They sought to influence and change the direction of government policy. Their diaries are part of history rather than eye-witness accounts of history being made. Members of the Thatcher Cabinets, including those who fell out with her such as Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine, also argue that ministers had more space to roam and grow as political figures than those who sit around the table now.
Blair has given his ministers no room to develop as mighty figures in their own right. Now he looks around destructively for a candidate who could beat Brown, and there is no one capable of getting close to meeting such a challenge. Compare this with previous leadership contests in both the parties. Several political giants sought to succeed Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. When Margaret Thatcher fell, the respectable trio of Hurd, Heseltine and Major, battled it out. When Major was in trouble, Heseltine, Clarke and Portillo were mentioned as credible successors.
In forming policy, Blair paid attention to Brown, John Prescott, to a much lesser extent, and Rupert Murdoch. In his diaries, Alastair Campbell's deputy, Lance Price, stated that they were the ones who mattered when policies were being drawn up: Brown, Prescott and the unelected Murdoch. Their diaries would be worth reading. For much of the second term, Brown acted as the only constitutional constraint against the increasingly ill-thought-through policies emerging from Downing Street. There was no equivalent constraint in relation to Iraq - and look what happened.
In 1997, after 18 years of opposition, Cabinet ministers were pleased to be at the top table, dependent wholly on prime ministerial patronage. Cook, Short and, in a different context, Estelle Morris, resigned rather than argue for what they knew to be wrong. Apart from Brown, and occasionally Prescott, none changed the course of policy.
Some ministers are starting to breathe now that Blair's powers of patronage have gone. Straw distances himself over Blair's response to Israel's attacks and raises the issue of the veil. Harriet Harman dares to question how foreign policy is formed. Peter Hain adopts a more openly progressive tone. Out of government, Charles Clarke expands on what would be a genuinely radical agenda. The Cabinet would have done Blair a favour had they been similarly assertive over the past 10 years. Their diaries would be a better read too.Reuse content