Cherie: 'Sack the chancellor'
Cherie Blair repeatedly urged her husband to sack Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown as she became incensed by his behaviour towards the prime minister, a family friend of the Blairs has disclosed.
Barry Cox, who has known the couple for 30 years, said that while the relationship between Blair and his chancellor had been strained since the mid-1990s, the prime minister finally began to believe the worst of his successor during his final year in office.
These admissions are among a series made by people from Blair’s inner circle that shed light on the divisive relationship that has dominated British politics for more than a decade.
In a documentary broadcast this week in the United Kingdom, former Cabinet ministers, including Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn, Estelle Morris and Clare Short, speak more frankly than ever on the way the relationship between the prime minister and his chancellor affected the running of smooth government. And further insights are given by Blair’s former director of policy, Matthew Taylor, his former European Union adviser, Stephen Wall, and Downing Street’s ex-director of strategy, Geoff Mulgan.
The documentary, The Rise and Fall of Tony Blair, provides new details of the anxiety Cherie Blair felt about the damage being done to her husband, the anger she felt and the measures that she urged her husband to take.
According to Cox, the problems between the two men had begun in 1994 but “became truly difficult after the 2001 election” because Brown wanted “to be prime minister now”.
Cox also said at one point Blair told him that he was planning to sack Brown. These insights are particularly informed; Cox has been on holiday with the Blairs and is not a party political figure with an axe to grind.
In an interview, he said: “Tony used to take the line, ‘Look, it’s entirely legitimate for Gordon to want to be prime minister’. And he would try to be understanding about it and lay it off. But within the last year he did begin to believe the worst of Gordon Brown”. Cox’s claims about the bitterness between Blair and Brown are echoed by Taylor, a close adviser to the prime minister, who said staff at No 10 felt like “they were children in a dysfunctional relationship where mum and dad are too busy arguing to ever talk to the kids”.
“You’d be sitting waiting for a decision and all that you could hear was the crockery being thrown around the kitchen,” said Taylor.
Former advisers and ministers admit that the tension between the Treasury and Downing Street was ever-present and affected the way Labour governed.
Wall highlighted the Treasury’s refusal to give Downing Street details of the next budget. “It was a constant battle,” he said. “For people in the Treasury to have contact with Downing Street was regarded as a kiss of death for their careers.”
Morris, who was education secretary at the start of the dispute over tuition fees, said the “tension between the two of them” left decision- making impossible because the situation “froze”.
Clarke, her successor at education, said of the chancellor’s methods: “What he [Brown] would do is go along, go along, go along. And then when it came to the point he’d then blast out a very, very full and very technically correct documents at enormous length which he had not shared with us at any point before.
“I would categorise Tony’s approach to social entrepreneurship ... that is to say to give schools, hospitals, universities the resource to get on with it and do it. Whereas Gordon’s view is much more traditional Labour view. Which means that you can pass a law or make an administrative decision in central government and that will change behaviour.”
On the morning of the vote on education top-up fees in January 2004, Wall recalls Sally Morgan, Blair’s chief political adviser, saying the prime minister did not know if the government would get its legislation through the Commons “because we don’t yet know whether Gordon is going to instruct his supporters to vote for the measure or not”.
According to the former health secretary Alan Milburn, Blair also regretted giving in to Brown over foundation hospitals by refusing to allow them to borrow. Asked how he knows this, he said: “Because he told me”.
Milburn also describes Blair’s decision to pre-announce his resignation before the 2005 election as a “foolish and mad thing to do”.
“You never, ever pre-announce your own demise,” he said.
Advisers also reveal Blair made a series of errors, and often failed to follow detail. Mulgan recalls: “New Labour often confused announcement for reality believing that if they were getting a success in the newspaper you were getting a success on the ground and that’s a very dangerous habit to get into.”
Blair also told Taylor how he had changed: “You have to understand the public are never going to like me as they did at the beginning. That’s gone. Hopefully, they can respect me and respect the decisions I make. But the idea that I’m one of them, that’s gone.”
But Taylor claims that by the end he had almost become almost reckless in his determination to force through change. “By the time he got to his third term you would say to Tony ‘don’t do that, its the right thing to do but it will be really unpopular, it’s a disastrous thing’.
“In fact, if you actually wanted to convince him of something you’d probably say the reverse. You could convince him to do something by saying ‘it’s a really unpopular thing to do’.”—Â