Steve Richards: The truth about Blair's Downing Street

The real weakness since 1997 has been a supine Cabinet and Parliament
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The Independent Online

Most of Blair's former advisers in Downing Street have spoken at length for the first time in public for a series that starts next week on Radio 4. Having interviewed them for the series, I have formed a very different impression of Blair's Downing Street. It might have aspired to control freakery, but was very rarely in control.

Quite a few of the former advisers confirm Lord Butler's critical impressions of a casual approach, but there is an important twist that I shall describe later in this column. First, here is the confirmation that some of the criticisms of Blair's style are well founded.

Sir Stephen Wall, an adviser on Europe until shortly before the last election, despairs of Blair's indifference to cabinet government. He tells me that even when ministers engaged in a candid discussion, Blair tended to conclude by looking up and stating "On verra" - "we will see". No one knew what the outcome of the discussion had been.

Jon Cruddas, an adviser on Labour Party matters, says that Blair preferred to hold discussions with a few people in his office, and that quite often Blair had made up his mind before the exchanges took place. Bill Bush, an adviser until the 2001 election, observed decisions being made when colleagues met in a corridor in Downing Street, although on these occasions a senior civil servant was summoned to formalise the informality.

Tim Allan, Blair's deputy press secretary in the early years, was conscious that close advisers had an immense advantage over the civil servants in Downing Street. Quite often they had known Blair for years. "In meetings we called him Tony and the civil servants called him Prime Minister." Those who called him Tony were aware that the implicit intimacy conveyed an access and rapport beyond the reach of civil servants.

But here is the twist. Most of the senior advisers came away with the sense that Blair's Downing Street, even in its artful informality, was not powerful enough. Roger Liddle, Blair's most senior adviser on Europe until the last election, believes more strongly than ever in the need for an official Prime Ministerial department. Geoff Mulgan, who was Blair's head of policy, dismisses the cries for cabinet government, suggesting it was difficult enough to make progress with all the layers of consultation under the current arrangements. Nearly all of them reflect on the constraints of powers rather than arrogantly proclaim their overwhelming dominance at the centre of a landslide government.

Revealingly they accept that quite a few of the constraints were self- imposed, a product of Blair's cautious pragmatism. Cruddas fears that the focus groups held too much sway . Wall and Liddle accept that the Euro-sceptic newspapers influenced the direction of European policy, although less than Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown. Liddle confirms that Blair had hoped the review of the economic tests in relation to the euro, carried out in 2003, would provide a route map and timetable for entry. Brown's opposition to such a firm commitment prevailed. More widely, Mulgan points out that the best decisions surface from candid debate. He believes that the diarists in Downing Street constrained such creative exchanges. Mulgan says that they knew that Alastair Campbell was writing a diary aimed at publication long before the news reached the media. As a result they were more careful in what they said. Mulgan would ban the publication of diaries from Downing Street insiders, and believes that policy-making would be better as a result.

But the biggest constraint was the presence of the mighty Chancellor. Blair's economics adviser, Derek Scott, confirms that often no one in Downing Street knew the details of budgets until shortly before their delivery. Wall says his polite notes to the Chancellor on policy matters were not welcomed in the Treasury. Liddle worries that the approach to the euro devised by Brown - we will only join once the five tests are met - prevented other ministers from putting a pro-European case. Only Mulgan fully appreciates the stormy genius of the relationship between Blair and Brown, but from an illuminating point of view. Mulgan suggests that during a period when there was no significant opposition, the Treasury in some ways was the opposition, keeping Downing Street on its toes, raising informed questions that no one else dared to asked. Significantly, Mulgan had worked with Brown in the past.

These advisers have been the source of raging controversy for a long time. Ministers are scared of them. Some civil servants disapprove of them. They came across to me as well meaning, committed, hard working and introspectively critical. If anything, they were not arrogant enough, and wonder now whether more could have been made of the landslide governments.

I was struck also by how much the former advisers liked Blair personally, even those who were frustrated by his rootless pragmatism and the sometimes chaotic informality of the working arrangements. His strongest internal critic, Cruddas, was especially fulsome in his personal praise: "I really liked him ... If people knew him better they would like him too." Another critic, Mulgan, notes that quite often Blair was the calmest person in the building. None of them heard him raise his voice in anger. From the inside, special advisers saw a likeable Prime Minister grasping with seemingly intractable problems. From the outside, the advisers were viewed as Blair's mighty representatives on earth, benefiting from greater Prime Ministerial access than most cabinet ministers. Robert Hill, Blair's adviser on health policy, compares his power to that of a junior minister. He is being too modest. Most cabinet ministers would have died for Hill's access, so close that he was one of those who played football with Blair at Chequers when they took a break from discussing policy.

The focus on the malign influence of special advisers is misplaced. They and their frustrated aspirations are not the problem. The real weakness since 1997 has been a supine Cabinet and Parliament. Ministers and Labour MPs have been too frightened of control freaks that were never as powerful as they seemed.

The first part of 'Look Back On Power' is on Radio 4 this Monday. The full interviews will be available on the BBC website