Case Study Tony Blair

Extension Activity watch these documentaries:

The Blair Years Episode 1

The Rise and Fall of Tony Blair

In 1994, following the unexpected death of then leader John Smith, Blair became Labour Party leader after Gordon Brown stood aside to avoid splitting the pro-modernising vote in the leadership ballot. Blair quickly attained unquestioned authority as leader, which was further underlined by Labour's landslide victory in the 1997 general election. At 43, he was the youngest premier since Lord Liverpool in 1812. He attempted to promote a youthful, modern image of Britain symbolised by BritPop, BritArt and the Millennium Dome. Some of his policies were genuinely radical, especially the constitutional reforms that delivered a measure of self-government to Wales and Scotland. But a promise to reform public services proved less easy to implement, and a controversial reliance on private enterprise initiatives did not seem to deliver the expected improvements in transport, education or health care. 

Tony Blair was very different to John Major in terms of governing style. While still leader of the opposition he taunted Major mercilessly over his divided following. 'There is one very big difference,' he told the Commons in April 1995, 'I lead my party, he follows his.' Blair combined a ruthless insistence on unity and discipline(control freakery) with an acute awareness of how to project a winning image through the media. The remodelling of Labour as a modernizing, centre party (New Labour) together with the weakness of John Major gave him a huge victory in 1997. He went on to win another huge majority in 2001 and a majority of 66 in 2005. Making him Labour mast successful leader. In 10 years he only suffered one defeat in the House of Commons ( a proposal to extend police powers of arrest to 90 days without charge) Until 2003 he was popular and had a favourable economic environment. After the Iraq war, his popularity declined.

Blair placed a strong emphasis on unified and strong government- he wanted it to be 'more joined up' in contrast to the divided Major years and Labour past history of infighting. He appointed Jonathan Powell as 'Chief of Staff' a title borrowed from the USA (evidence of his presidential style) and with Alistair Campbell he cut across departments to control the presentation of policies. He saw this as more Napoleonic and less feudal- he meant that minister would have less autonomy.  Blair increased the number of SPADs (special advisers) and created a 'Number 10 Machine' The Cabinet Office with the Policy Unity and Delivery Unity sought to drive an agenda of public service reform. While the Strategic Communications Unit headed by Alistair Campbell controlled the presentation ( this was criticised as 'Spin')

Blair used a more informal style (Sofa Politics) with more one to one meetings with ministers ( bilateral decision making) While this informal style gave him more personal control it risked cutting out a more broad consideration of views- discussion in the Cabinet declined and meetings of the Cabinet became shorter. This was later criticised in a report by Lord Butler into the decision to enter the war in Iraq- which was taken by Blair without much Cabinet discussion. 

The Brown factor- Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown (who served as Chancellor for 10 years) was problematic. Brown had always expected Blair to give way to him when this did not happen their relationship deteriorated. But Blair saw Brown as too powerful in the party to remove which meant an important area of policy were handed to Brown. For example, Brown blocked Blair's wish to take the UK into the Single European Currency.

Brown devised five economic tests that would first have to be passed, and insisted that the Treasury would determine whether they had been met. These tensions at the top meant that, although Blair had the advantage of a broadly united party - most Labour MPs were grateful to him for delivering three successive election victories - there were destabilising conflicts between 'Blairite' and 'Brownite' factions.

·   ✓ The Blair government had a number of important policy achievements to its credit. In his first term, Blair put through a range of constitutional reforms that modernised the political system without jeopardising the authority of central government. Most hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords, ending the Conservative Party's control of the upper house, but the more radical step of replacing an appointed chamber with an elected one was not taken. Devolution was granted to Scotland and Wales, with new representative bodies elected using proportional systems, but Blair avoided holding a referendum on electoral reform for Westminster, preferring to retain a model that delivered Labour victories.

✓ Blair's most outstanding personal success was his revival of the peace process in Northern Ireland, culminating in the creation of power-sharing institutions following the April 1998·   Good Friday agreement. He showed his skills as a negotiator in finding just enough common ground to bring unionists, moderate nationalists and hard-line republicans together. Although trust between the rival communities broke down more than once, leading to the re-imposition of direct rule from London for 5 years, Blair succeeded in restoring devolved government shortly before he left office. This was due to a combination of firmness and a talent for building constructive personal relationships with key individuals on both sides of the sectarian divide.

·   ✓ Public service reform was an area close to Blair's heart. He had some success in introducing the ideas and methods of the business sector to improve the delivery of education and health. Self-governing city academies, which took their funding directly from central government rather than from local authorities, began to replace failing state schools, providing a model that was developed by later governments. Foundation hospitals, whose managers were given additional powers and funding, were another break with the traditional Labour idea that the state should guarantee a uniform model of welfare provision. The principle that university students should contribute to the cost of their education was established, and the level of tuition fees was hiked in 2004 in the teeth of bitter Labour backbench opposition. At the same time some distinctively 'Labour' measures were introduced, including a national minimum wage, free nursery places and Sure Start centres to help families in the most deprived areas. Their overall effect was to halt the widening of the gap between rich and poor, if not to reverse it. Blair's insistence on a socially liberal agenda, which was at least as important to him as the battle against poverty, was reflected in the introduction of civil partnerships for same sex couples.

X There were areas where change was frustrated. Blair himself blamed the opposition of vested interests within the public sector, talking of 'scars on his back', for his unsuccessful attempts to reform the way in which services were delivered. Perhaps more important was the fact that in his second term issues of national security and foreign policy diverted his attention. 


After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington, Blair showed the ability of a powerful prime minister to shape overseas policy. He committed the UK to support US President George W. Bush's 'war on terror, which saw British troops engaged in lengthy campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike the first Gulf War under Major, neither operation concluded with a clear-cut result. The Iraq War in particular inflicted lasting damage on Blair's reputation as, although the tyrant Saddam Hussein was rapidly removed, order inside the country disintegrated and allied troops faced prolonged guerrilla resistance. Critics focused on Blair's willingness to take the country to war on the basis of unsubstantiated claims that Iraq's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. He was also blamed for his failure to formulate a plan with the US for the reconstruction of Iraq after the toppling of Saddam. He gave the impression of having surrendered his judgement in order to keep in line with the US administration. Blair's premiership illustrates both the immense potential of the office - to transform governmental structures and to embark on major departures in policy - and its limitations. The erosion of trust that followed the Iraq War severely limited Blair's chances of leaving a positive legacy in other areas.

In a series of official reports after the war, such as the 2004 report by Lord Butler and the 2016 Chilcot Report, it transpired that although the cabinet was briefed many times on the situation in Iraq beforehand, ministers were denied access to key papers. The reports were also highly critical of government actions, especially those taken by Blair personally. 

Blair’s preference for informal ‘sofa government’ meant there was little by way of informed collective discussion and decision-making. Blair also disregarded security warnings, and criticism that the legal basis for going to war had not been fully evaluated. There was also apparently scant discussion of other policy options, such as working more in tandem with European neighbours or through the UN. This is another example - of dominant PMs who were able to push through policy but when it became a liability that that power turned back on them since Blair was left without anyone to blame or carry the burden of responsibility, especially when the non-existence of WMDs emerged.

The resignation of cabinet minister, Robin Cook, and of Clare Short soon afterwards served to weaken Blair’s position further and more publicly. The suicide of government scientist Dr David Kelly also increased scrutiny of government and criticism of the government’s Iraq War policy.

The legacy of this unsuccessful military venture can be seen in the reluctance of subsequent UK governments to deploy ground forces in further Middle East conflicts, such as Syria.

Case Study America's War in Iraq