Case Study Tony Blair

Tony Blair, Labour, 1997–2007

Parliamentary majorities

  • 1997: 179

  • 2001: 167

  • 2005: 66

State of the party

From the early 1990s onwards a tight-knit group of leading members of the Labour Party developed a new set of policies designed to challenge the Conservatives and to modernise the UK. They became known as ‘New Labour’ and their beliefs were collectively known as the ‘third way’. The third way was a path somewhere between the radical right-wing, neo-liberal policies of Thatcher and the more socialist ideas of the left wing of the Labour Party, combining the best elements of each. The group was initially led by John Smith and contained such people as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Peter Mandelson. In 1994, however, Smith died suddenly and Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party in his place.

By then New Labour had taken over most of the party. The left-wingers (of whom Jeremy Corbyn was a leading member) were only a small minority. Blair, therefore, led a united party with a clear vision and strong determination to oust the Conservatives. It was to prove as cohesive and dynamic as the Conservative group that underpinned Margaret Thatcher’s authority in the mid-1980s. New Labour remained united until events began to divide the party in 2003–04. By 2007 the split in the party was so severe that Blair had to go.

Examples of key policies

An extensive programme of constitutional reform including devolution and the Human Rights Act

Sharp, sustained increases in expenditure on health and education

Increased welfare benef ts for those genuinely unable to support themselves

Introducing a national minimum wage

Introducing tax credits, mainly to reduce child poverty

Granting independence to the Bank of England to establish more rational financial policies

Using government financial surpluses to reduce government debt

An active foreign policy with major interventions in the Balkans war, the Sierra Leone civil war and Iraq

Pursuing closer links with Europe but resisting joining the eurozone

Reducing business taxes to promote economic growth

Style of leadership

Blair was as charismatic as Margaret Thatcher. However, unlike Thatcher, he was part of a collective leadership. The key policies adopted by the Labour government after 1997 were delegated to his leading cohort. Economic policy in particular was handled by Gordon Brown and domestic social policy by other senior ministers such as Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Harriet Harman and Frank Dobson. Blair himself concentrated largely on foreign policy. After 6 or 7 years, however, Blair’s leadership became more singular and his popularity in the party waned. It was widely felt that he had over-reached his authority.

Prominent events

Rarely can the fortunes of a prime minister have turned so dramatically on a single event as happened to Tony Blair. Up to 2003 the UK had enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth, public services such as health and education were improving and Blair himself had initiated two successful overseas military campaigns in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. At the same time the peace process in Northern Ireland had come to a successful conclusion with the establishment of a power-sharing government in the province. Then Blair ordered the UK armed forces to join the USA-led invasion of Iraq. The war went reasonably well but the aftermath was a disaster. In particular it was revealed that the evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had accumulated weapons of mass destruction was false. Saddam was deposed but Iraq fell into widespread sectarian strife. Blair’s stock in the country and in the party began to fall. As violence in the Middle East grew, Blair was seen in an increasingly negative light. At the same time it appeared that inequality was growing in the UK. Those who believed the Labour Party’s role was to reduce inequality were dismayed. Internal opposition gathered around Gordon Brown and the party fell apart.

Circumstances of loss of power

By 2007 the momentum in the party for a change of leadership became irresistible. Tony Blair resigned before a divisive leadership contest completely destroyed party unity. He recommended that Brown should succeed him.