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Anji Hunter, Tony Blair’s adviser, on New Labour’s triumphs and failures

‘It was a quite a shock. Can you imagine? Robin Cook’s head in your bosom.’

John Rentoul
Sunday 26 February 2017 12:01 GMT
Anji Hunter, centre, at King's College, London, last month, with John Rentoul, left, and Jon Davis, right
Anji Hunter, centre, at King's College, London, last month, with John Rentoul, left, and Jon Davis, right

Anji Hunter, who was Tony Blair’s adviser from 1988 to the end of 2001, came to the “Blair Years” class, which Jon Davis and I teach at King’s College, London. This was on 23 January, but I have only just had time to write it up. It was a fascinating session in which we learned new things about the man and his government, a decade after it ended.

She talked about when she first met Blair. She said she was 14 and he was 16 (although I think they may have been 15 and 17). “I met him at a party in Forfar in Scotland, and in those days the opening gambit at these parties – we were all privately educated kids, and we met at a mutual friend’s house for a dance – when you met a guy was, ‘What school do you go to?’ So he said, ‘Fettes,’ I said, ‘St Leonards,’ and he said, ‘Oh great, do you know someone called Marie Stuart?’ ‘Yes I do, actually.’ And he said, ‘That’s fantastic because I’ve got the hots for her.’ And then he said, ‘Would you convey a message to her from me?’

“And that was the thing I did for him for the rest of my life. I was basically his messenger, not to importune women, but I became his sort of fixer. We became good friends, while he pursued my friend Marie Stuart. Really good mates. Contrary to what people say, ‘Oh you must have been boyfriend-girlfriend’ – never were, we were just really good mates, right from the beginning.

“I was expelled from my boarding school for being agin the establishment, it was called, so I went to this prestigious sixth-form college in Oxford, called St Clare’s Hall. It was full of girls who had been expelled from their boarding schools. It was full of really racy girls, independent girls, fun girls and clever girls, girls who had kicked against the grains of their educational establishments. I got there in ‘71. He arrived in ‘72. I had this whole phalanx of gorgeous women, so I said, which one of these – he had moved on from Marie Stuart at this point. So I introduced him to all of my friends, and he introduced me to all of his friends.”

Fourteen years later, Hunter did some temporary work for Blair, now an MP and already on the front bench, as her “independent learning assignment” for her degree. “I went and did my degree, much later, because I got married young, had my kids young and when they were one and two I thought it’s time to go to university. I joined the local Labour Party, funnily enough during the miners strike. But partly I joined it because I was against the miners strike. I thought I needed to be a voice saying I don’t agree with what’s going on here. I think Arthur Scargill needs to have his pants pulled down and his bottom smacked. That is when I joined.” Blair had separately become involved with Labour. “It didn’t surprise me at all that he went into politics.”

At the end of her assignment Blair said to her: “‘When you finish why don’t you come and work for me as a research assistant? Because most people in here are’ – and it was the word beginning with c. He said, ‘You need a friend in here.’ I had done a history degree and got a first class degree. So I knew I was able. So I went to be his research assistant, and I was the only one working for him, in this tiny room, there was just him and Gordon Brown in the tea corridor just off the committee corridor. It was literally a room about the size of this table and there was Tony here, the desks were facing each other, Tony, Gordon; and I sat on the floor on a pouffe. My desk was the waste paper bin that was turned upside down. One of my tasks that he specifically said to me was, ‘I want you to be an alliance builder for me.’ And that is what I have been doing all my life.

“When I first went there there was no question that Gordon was in the ascendancy. Tony was quite in awe of him. Gordon had the roots and the intellect. He always said, ‘Gordon’s got a brain like a melon.’ It was the closest male relationship that I’d ever come across, and it was thrilling to be in this room with them. Everything was back-forth-back-forth, and Gordon was incredibly funny.”

As someone who observed the origin of New Labour, she said it arose out of that partnership. “It was them. It was those two, and Peter Mandelson. [The Labour Party] was absolutely chaotic and Peter came in, and Peter is born New Labour, to his bootstraps. They were the triumvirate. Alastair [Campbell] then worked for the Daily Mirror and he would pop in trying to get stories. He was another of the journos that I had in my palm.”

Then she talked about the death of John Smith, who was leader of the Labour Party from 1992 to 1994. “Tony was going in the morning, all organised by me, to Aberdeen to launch the [European Parliament] elections up there. I thought, ‘Oh good I could have a late start because he wouldn’t be there so I could take the children to school,’ which I did. I came off the train, came into the office, in 1 Parliament Street, up two floors and the lift doors open and Peter Hyman, who worked for Donald Dewar, was standing there and he’d got tears pouring down his face. He said, ‘Have you heard?’ And my first thought was, ‘Tony’s plane’s crashed.’ It makes me feel funny even now. Tears sprang up at the back of my eyes and I thought, ‘Tony’s dead.’ He said, ‘John Smith’s died.’

“And I have to be honest with you my very first reaction was, ‘Thank god, thank god it’s not Tony.’ Then my next reaction was, ‘Elizabeth,’ his wife. And then, and this happens within about one second, as we’re turning the corner to my office, I thought, ‘Fuck. Fuck. Tony’s going to want to be next leader.’ Because at that time, over the previous year, Tony had been shadow Home Secretary and Gordon was in trouble. Tony had got the Zeitgeist.

“I walked into Tony’s office and Robin Cook was sitting in my desk and Donald Dewar was sitting in Kate Garvey’s desk. And Robin put his arms around me and pulled me down to him and put his head in my bosom. It was a quite a shock. Can you imagine? Robin Cook’s head in your bosom. And he started crying. Donald was on phone. I said, ‘Have you spoken to Tony?’ He said, ‘I’ve just got him now.’ He had just arrived in Aberdeen. So it was Donald that told Tony.

“My phone rang. It was Sarah Baxter, then a leader-writer on the Evening Standard and very much a New Labour person. She said, ‘If John dies’ – because it hadn’t been announced yet because they were trying to contact one of his children who was hitch-hiking in America – ‘I’m going to write in the leader column that Tony should be the next leader. I said, ‘Please don’t do that.’ I remember the anguish in my voice. ‘I haven’t spoken to Gordon.’ I knew there was going to be the most almighty fallout.”

She was right about that, but despite the breakdown in the Blair-Brown relationship, Blair became party leader and was Prime Minister for 10 years. “It was completely thrilling. I say every day thank you god for the work I was able to do in my life. It was an astonishing privilege. And I like to think I was a part of making it successful. I do think New Labour did transform society, Britain became this open, more easy-going country.”

One of the students asked if Blair’s government had been male-dominated: after the optimistic start with a lot of women MPs, did he fulfil his early promise? “It was slightly laddish. There’s no question about that. I’d been there about three or four months and I found out that Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, who were my equals before the election – Tony said no complacency, that was his mantra, he couldn’t bear the thought of people doing courses in government (people went off to Oxford because Jonathan Powell sent them). Even on election night he said I don’t want to hear about what the exit poll is saying.

“But Jonathan and Alastair, unbeknownst to me and certainly unbeknownst to him, had gone to Whitehall and done a deal on their salary. I went in and I was told this is your salary and I said fine, but they had done a deal saying they were so important they had some special, what was that thing [‘an Order in Council’] that ludicrous thing, some formal thing that said they could boss civil servants about. It wasn’t offered to me, is all I can say.

“I think my salary was about half as much as theirs. I kept my mouth shut for a while. Then after a few months I thought why should I put up with this? I got my salary raised to the same as theirs but it took a lot of hassle. But I had Tony’s support in that. ‘Of course she should have more money. How could you have done this, guys?’ It was slightly laddish, because Alastair is a lad, a sort of football laddo. He is a little bit misogynist, a tiny bit. You can say this to him. He and I are really good pals.

“I don’t really have an ego about titles and Orders in Council and these special privileges. Am I good at my job or not? Do people respect me or not? I could boss civil servants around as much as I liked and they bloody loved it. They were getting proper direction from me and they got it in a very nice way. I wouldn’t think there is a single civil servant you can find who say who would say she was awful, difficult to work with. I hope they would say I was good.”

She spoke about 9/11, which happened while Blair was preparing to speak to the Trades Union Congress in Brighton. “We’d driven down but it was decided by the Special Branch to return to London by train because we would be too visible on the motorway.” She said it was one of those moments where you see someone’s character, “when the chips are down, when something overwhelming is happening”, and Blair was calm, in control. “He rose to it.”

She was asked about the ways New Labour had failed to meet her ambitions and expectations. “One thing we did not do was just blow up the House of Lords, which I think we should have done. It is one of the most undemocratic ancien-regime facets of our political life. I know how awful it is because I’ve put people in there.”

But she was most rueful about the failure of the Blair government to make the modernisation of the Labour Party permanent, and to secure Britain’s place in the European Union. “Look where we are now. This is where I say we screwed up, a bit. We must have, because we’ve got Jeremy Corbyn as our leader. We didn’t embed New Labour deeply enough. We couldn’t have, because we’ve got this idiot, and we can never win with Jeremy Corbyn, it’s not going to happen. And then we’re out of Europe. How did we? We must have had something to do with that.

“I think, although it’s superficial of me, that if Gordon hadn’t become the leader, he wouldn’t have stopped David Miliband, and that it was because of Ed Miliband that we’ve got Jeremy Corbyn. There’s no question about that. That’s what he did. We didn’t educate people well enough. We couldn’t have. Otherwise we wouldn’t have voted to leave the EU. We didn’t do some things right.”

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