John McTernan: Blair, Brown and what a Number 10 political secretary actually does

In John Rentoul’s latest dispatch from the ‘Blair Years’ classes at King’s College London, John McTernan reveals what a director of political operations does and what it was like working under Blair

Monday 09 May 2022 21:30 BST
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<p>John McTernan was director of political operations for the last two years of Tony Blair’s government </p>

John McTernan was director of political operations for the last two years of Tony Blair’s government

John McTernan was political secretary at Number 10 Downing Street in the last two years of Tony Blair’s government, and when he came to the “Blair Years” class that I teach with Dr Michelle Clement and Professor Jon Davis at King’s College London, he explained why it is such a special job.

“Political secretary is a really old-fashioned term,” he told our postgraduate students. “I was called director of political operations, because there was some desire to have some kind of corporate vibe. But political secretary is the job that Marcia Falkender did.”

Marcia Williams, later Baroness Falkender, was the member of Harold Wilson’s kitchen cabinet who looked out for the prime minister’s personal and political interests. “Political secretary is the job that I did; I’ll go to my grave as the political secretary. It’s one of the great privileges of my life to have taken one of those roles that hardly anybody in the Labour Party ever gets to do.”

His job was, he says, “to bring the political perspective to the strategic decisions and decision making. You’re not defining; you’re just going, ‘what about the unions, boss?’ Or, ‘what about the elections?’”

McTernan was brought in initially in 2004 to help write the manifesto for the 2005 election with Matthew Taylor – the head of the No 10 policy unit. But after Tony Blair won his third election, McTernan took over from Pat McFadden – who had been elected to parliament – as political secretary.

Because Blair had announced that he would not be standing again before the election, McTernan had limited means of persuading MPs to support the prime minister: “You can’t be promising people they could be a minister in the future. We had three years max and we ended up with two, so I didn’t have much currency. The Brown ascendancy was coming through.”

Yet Blair still managed to achieve a great deal in his last two years, with McTernan in a central role as a Labour Party employee at the heart of No 10. His job was different from those of special advisers, the political appointees who are employed by the taxpayer: “There are policy special advisers, there are communication special advisers, there are events special advisers, there are forward-looking special advisers, and no doubt there are now social media special advisers. I was in the pre-iPhone days; I was BlackBerry.”

After Blair won his third election, McTernan (left) took over from Pat McFadden

As head of the political office, his job was to manage all of the party relationships, because a prime minister, as well as being leader of the country and chair of the cabinet – bringing together all the government departments – is also the leader of a political party. That meant managing relations with all the parts of the Labour Party including MPs, local parties, regional and devolved-nation parties and trade unions and also worrying about the organisational side of elections.

Among MPs, one of McTernan’s jobs was to organise the “Q Group” – Q for Questions. Working with Keith Hill, who was Blair’s parliamentary private secretary, the prime minister’s “eyes and ears within the parliamentary party”, he would “orchestrate” questions asked by loyal MPs in the House of Commons.

He was also proud of having organised a group he called the Non-Embittered Former Ministers: “This is really important because people who are promoted to be a minister are loyal to the government and they vote the line on every single issue. It turns out when they go to the back bench and have no chance coming back into the government they discover a thing called a conscience. And every time they have an idea that’s in conflict with the government, they vote against the government.”

A good politician is never threatened by any question, whatever the subject, because if they know themselves and they know the world, they know the answer to a question even if it’s off-topic

McTernan would give the group briefings, so that they could help communicate messaging that was supportive of the government, and of Blair in particular. But this was a period of constant internal strife: “I did, for a period, have a spy from the Brown camp who’d found out, so they had somebody impersonating a Non-Embittered Former Minister. I found out about this because Tony told me that Gordon was asking why I said something to the group. He then stopped being invited to the Non-Embittered Former Ministers group.”

McTernan faced a similar struggle in trying to persuade trade union leaders to stick with Blair: “I had to have relationships with the affiliated trade union general secretaries and the future potential general secretaries, the loyal ones and the disloyal ones,” McTernan said. He successfully organised the loyal trade unions, “which were at times a small bunch”.

He told the story of how the loyalty of Usdaw (the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) to Blair paid dividends. Its members have always been solidly against shops opening on Sundays, and John Hannett, the general secretary, said to McTernan that they could not have Sundays liberalised for shopping; his members wouldn’t accept it. McTernan went to see the prime minister and said they couldn’t go ahead. Blair asked why. “John Hannett doesn’t want to,” said McTernan. And that was that, Blair wouldn’t go through with it.

Blair was able to be authentic in an age of spin because he was confident in what he believed

Another essential part of the political secretary’s job is communications, otherwise known by the word that marked the New Labour period: spin. “We did spin,” said McTernan. “What were we doing? Making the best possible case we could in the quite hostile media environment that we had. Were we always good at it? No. Were our hearts pure? Yes. Did we have substance to argue about? Yes.”

He said that Blair was able to be authentic in an age of spin because he was confident in what he believed. “Tony was not condescending about any lifestyles in modern Britain. Some of his staff were. I had this amazing conversation with one of my senior colleagues about, ‘Why do a couple with two children want or need a four-bedroom detached house with two garages?’ One, it is none of your business. We are not engineers of people’s souls. Two, what if they need a spare room for a study or because one of them is running a business from home, or they’ve got an elderly relative who they’d like to have coming to stay from time to time? What if they work in two different places and the public transport doesn’t allow them to get there. And finally, it is none of your business. That desire to meddle, meddle, meddle, is called, in military theory, the long screwdriver, which is someone at the centre thinking, ‘if only I had a long enough screwdriver I could adjust the cannon sights and the artillery would work better.’”

In McTernan’s view, “a good politician is never threatened by any question, whatever the subject, because if they know themselves and they know the world, they know the answer to a question even if it’s off-topic. Wes Streeting is one of them. Lisa Nandy is one of them. I remember Lisa Nandy did so well with Andrew Neil [during the Labour leadership election of 2020], and everyone was surprised by it. You can’t discomfit her because she knows what her political view of the world is. It may not be yours; it may not be shared by everybody in the Labour Party; but it bloody well is hers.

“People were surprised that Rachel Reeves was able to do such a good speech at 30 minutes’ notice,” when she stood in for Keir Starmer to respond to the budget last year when he tested positive just beforehand. He said: “I’ve known Rachel for 20 years; she’s been preparing for 20 years to give that speech. But that’s a good thing. You don’t become a leader by wanting to be a leader.”

If Gordon had been loyal, there was a good chance of a fourth term. But Gordon took so much paint off the Labour Party. Disunity is death in politics

Above all, however, a political secretary has to worry about the prime minister’s role in election campaigns. “If I was in No 10 now with the local elections coming up,” he said (the class was at the end of January), “I would have had the pollsters in and I would have had them work out for me if there was any chance that Westminster and Wandsworth could fall?” He would then work out how to pitch it and manage expectations. If he were working for the Tories he would “set some crazy target that, to be on track to win the next election, Labour have got to win 5,000 council seats. You find a way to frame it from No 10’s point of view. So this test of opinion isn’t a referendum on Partygate; it’s not a referendum on Boris Johnson; it’s a referendum on – you know what? – on Keir Starmer.”

Because Blair wasn’t going to be standing for election again, however, the most important election of McTernan’s time in No 10 was the 2005 general election. “Two things happened in the 2005 election,” he said. “One was the Tories wrote and ran a brilliant campaign that the public weren’t ready to listen to yet. ‘More police.’ ‘Clean hospitals.’ I still use it as a model with the parties that I work with.” (McTernan has had a post-Downing-Street career of advising politicians around the world, including Julia Gillard, the Labor prime minister of Australia.) “If you can get everything down to five or 10 promises made up of two words, you’re winning. Tony Abbott, when he defeated us in Australia, had a campaign that was done in exactly that way.”

The Tory slogan of the 2005 election, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” – with one of its secondary messages “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” – was, according to McTernan, “the defining political campaign of the last few decades, and set up everything else that was to come”.

The other thing that happened in the 2005 campaign, however, was Blair’s response to the Conservative attack on immigration. “It was a really interesting moment in that campaign,” said McTernan. “Tony refused to give a speech, refused to respond, refused, refused, refused. Finally, he did that speech in Dover, and what he basically said was the Australian points-based system and blah, blah, blah. But what he was actually saying was: ‘Those Tories: still a bit racist, aren’t they?’ That was all he was really saying. ‘I hear you, but those guys are not fit to govern.’”

When Blair left Downing Street the outlook for Labour had become more difficult

Immigration was growing as an issue, said McTernan, and Tony got that. When Blair himself came to the class later, the students asked him about the issue of immigration in the 2005 election, and he gave a similar answer. “Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, was running around saying, ‘Labour are afraid to talk about immigration,’ and what was that phrase he had? ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’” Blair said. “So I would say, ‘No, I’m talking about it, but I’ve got an answer to it; you’re just trying to exploit it.’ And in the end they had to come off it in the election campaign; it just didn’t work, because we were confident enough to have an argument about that. But if I’d tried running from that it would have become a big issue.”

McTernan recalled a conversation with the late Philip Gould, the Labour pollster, as Blair’s time as prime minister was coming to an end. “If you remember, there was no leadership election campaign, but Gordon was going around the country, ‘listening’ and ‘learning’. Philip and I agreed that if Gordon listened when he went around the country, he’d learn that everyone was talking about crime and immigration. If he actually had listened we might have done something, so there was a mood miss there.” Or, as Blair told our class: “If I had still been in office when I could see this problem arising, I would have been trying to deal with it.”

By the time Blair came to hand over to Brown, however, the outlook for Labour had become more difficult, with the election of David Cameron as Conservative leader. By choosing Cameron, the Tories avoided disaster. “There were definitely people in the Conservative Party, quite senior people, who would have had a different history if David Davis had been leader,” McTernan said. “Gordon would have won a fourth term and the Tories would have split. Some of them would have come to the Labour Party. I was in the beginnings of negotiations with one person through an intermediary, and I know that other people were in conversations. This was the last throw of the dice.”

McTernan thought the campaign waged by Brown’s supporters against Blair came at an unacceptable price

Part of the political secretary’s unwritten job description is, therefore, to manage defections. But Cameron’s election as leader kept the Tory party together and turned it, at last, into an effective opposition. McTernan said he agreed with Cameron and George Osborne when they said that if they didn’t save the party from itself there would be no Conservative Party to save.

Even so, McTernan argued that Labour could have been in government for longer if Brown had been more supportive of Blair: “If Gordon had been loyal, there was a good chance of a fourth term. But Gordon took so much paint off the Labour Party. Disunity is death in politics. Although looking back on it, it does look as though there was hardly any difference between the two of them, and there wasn’t, Gordon persuaded many of the more gullible columnists in the public prints that he had an extensive programme of Brownite policies. But all he did was Labour things, and the other things were ‘Tony things’ and so there was no intellectual vigour brought to the party by Gordon.”

McTernan thought the campaign waged by Brown’s supporters against Blair came at an unacceptable price: “They did so much violence to Tony, that finally the Parliamentary Labour Party said, ‘If we let Gordon be prime minister, then all this will stop,’ which was political terrorism, but it worked on their part. That was the strategy: to make it impossible for us to govern; to make it impossible for Labour MPs to want us to stay.”

And that’s the most important thing. Everybody in the civil service, as we see from Partygate, believes they are paid to say ‘yes’ to the prime minister. The advisers are paid to say ‘no’

Within four months of Brown taking over as prime minister, there was the “election that never was”. If the election had gone ahead, McTernan said, “I’d be John McTernan MP, because I had a seat to be parachuted into over that frantic weekend. I made the call and they said yes. I don’t know where I would have been, which safe seat I would have been in; so many candidates had to be selected in such a short time it would have just been done.”

Brown should have gone ahead, according to McTernan: “If Gordon had gone to the public, they would have said, ‘Yeah, we’ll give you a little extension.’ He would have had a smaller majority or even a minority government over the period of the financial crisis. But the crisis would have been at the beginning of his government and the recovery at the end; it would have been a totally different story. And it didn’t happen, because Gordon wanted a bigger majority than Tony had. I’ve never heard that said or written by any Brownite, but I’ve known Gordon since I was 13. I was assistant secretary of the Edinburgh South Labour Party when he was secretary. He’s a family friend, but when I went to work in No 10 he wouldn’t speak to me for three years because I was working for Tony. I know him really, really well, and I know that’s what he wanted. He wanted a bigger majority.

The public mood was changing, which Blair felt intuitively but which Brown missed

“As Tony said, his ambition to be prime minister was not ignoble,” said McTernan. “But in this case he [Brown] stopped himself from a victory that would have been defining for him in the desire for something that he in the end couldn’t get.”

The public mood was changing, which Blair felt intuitively but which Brown missed, according to McTernan. But after the 2010 election the Liberal Democrats “made the most disastrous decision of any political party in my lifetime”, said McTernan. “Imagine a different situation, if David Owen had been a leader of the Liberal Democrats – or the Democrats as it would have been if he had had his way – he’d have said, ‘The country wants a change; it needs a Tory government. It needs to see the back of the Labour government. It clearly hasn’t decided on a Tory government – the Tories haven’t reformed enough. We will keep the Tory party honest, but we’ll put them in power with confidence and supply, and any issue they wish they can bring to the floor of the House.’ And if they had done that, the tripling of student fees wouldn’t have happened.

“I once spoke to some senior Liberal Democrat advisers about what actually happened. They said, ‘There were too many meetings. We had too much work done, commissioned too many papers, it was too far gone to stop.’ I said, ‘Mate, the only job of the adviser that is irreplaceable is when you say, “Boss, you’re not doing that. You are not leaving the room until you agree you are not doing that.”’

“And that’s the most important thing. Everybody in the civil service, as we see from Partygate, believes they are paid to say ‘yes’ to the prime minister. The advisers are paid to say ‘no’.”

Finally, McTernan brought the story up to date with his view of the current government: “Johnson’s strength was that he understood the public wanted more public spending. If I was advising the Tories now I would say: ‘You won Labour voters; give them Labour policies.’ Almost every MP in the red wall is what we call in politics a lottery winner – somebody selected by the party in the strong expectation that that person will never go anywhere near parliament, and then when you win a landslide, you go, ‘What? We should have vetted our MPs much further down the line.’ Those people are pushing right-wing policies which are not in their own interests.”

I wonder what Declan Lyons, who became Boris Johnson’s political secretary a year ago, makes of that.

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