Back to website

Clare Short: At the court of King Tony

In the final extract from her new book, Clare Short describes how a close friendship with Tony Blair deteriorated when he began briefing against her

25 October 2004

After Tony became leader, we worked together very well, despite our various differences. He is easy to like and superb at presentation, and I was determined to do all I could to help bring a Labour government to power. People sometimes exaggerate the personal side of political differences. Being one of seven brothers and sisters, each of whom I love dearly, I grew up in a family of passionate argument and disagreement but within an assumption of continuing love and respect. Of course, people fall out sometimes when there are political differences but usually we come back together in what we all used to call the Labour family.

Once he became leader, Tony Blair and I saw much more of each other, because at that time the NEC had a significant role in the party. We got on well; in fact, I can remember when the Shadow Cabinet elections were coming up and I was standing again, having been a runner-up for some time, he wished me luck and said he thought I could be a very good minister if I was able to come to terms with questions of expediency that I would have to face. I have occasionally pondered since what he had in mind, and wish I had asked him.

Soon after I was elected to the Shadow Cabinet, I had a couple of spats with the media. The first came when I was invited on to discuss transport on the Frost programme but was also asked about drugs. I suggested that it might be good to appoint a Royal Commission to investigate whether we could handle the drug problem better, and consider whether cannabis should be legalised and taxed to separate its users from the suppliers of harder drugs. The second was when I said, in answer to a question, that people like me should pay a bit more tax. In both cases, the media went to town because a member of the Shadow Cabinet had said such things, and Alastair Campbell, by then in place as Blair's press officer, strongly briefed against me (as I was informed by various journalists). I think it was reasonable to criticise me for not being more careful, but I had just been elected to the Shadow Cabinet and had not adapted to the heightened media interest there would be in my every word. No one took me aside to give any advice. This, I soon learnt, was Tony Blair's management style: very little discussion of the expectations and duties of the Shadow Cabinet job or collective discussion of policy but nasty briefing through the media if one was thought to have stepped out of line.

Following those events, I was invited to visit the Blairs at home on a couple of occasions, presumably to ensure that no offence was taken. During these visits, both he and Cherie were very welcoming and friendly and it was very clear what a loving and hands-on father Tony was.

[In 1996], I and my team worked our socks off preparing a considered and serious transport policy. [Then,] as our transport policy document was reaching finalisation, Tony Blair called me in and asked whether I couldn't just drop it and make a series of speeches. I said this was impossible because we had consulted widely and the document was expected throughout the transport industry. We left it there; and then, one night just before the summer recess when I had guests eating with me in the House of Commons, my bleep went off with an urgent summons to Blair's office. He told me he wanted me to move from Transport to Overseas Development. I was stunned and angry.

There had been no warning and no discussion. I said I had no time to talk and went back to my guests and then home. I really did not know what to do. His behaviour was so unreasonable. I had, in good faith, spent masses of time consulting people throughout the transport industry and many senior people had taken the process very seriously. I had drafted a document on the basis of those consultations which was due to go to conference and form the basis for Labour's transport policy and now all that work was to be scrapped. The media, as ever, got wind of the drama and came and camped outside my house. Tony rang to try to calm me down. My staff came to join me and were equally astonished at our leader's way of running things. But eventually we all agreed that if we had been offered Transport or Overseas Development in the first place, we would have chosen Overseas Development.

[SHORTLY AFTER Labour came to power] there were intimations of an enormous centralisation of power and an unwillingness to encourage open discussion and collaborative decision-making. An early experience of this came at one of the first cabinet discussions. The meeting took place in June and we discussed whether we should proceed with Tory plans for the Millennium Dome. We were all new and believed that Cabinet was supposed to proceed through a free expression of opinion summed up by the Prime Minister. One after another, members of the Cabinet said no to the Dome. A large number spoke and the view was almost universally hostile. Then suddenly, Tony said that he was sorry, he hadn't expected Cabinet to go on for so long, he had to leave and John Prescott would sum up. He then went out to a pre-arranged press conference and announced that we would continue with the Dome.

After this, cabinet meetings were always short. There were no papers other than the legislative programme. The agenda was the same for almost every meeting and simply listed home affairs and foreign affairs and then Tony would bring up whatever he had in mind. Before the Budget or an announcement on public expenditure, Gordon would be asked to give an outline of his speech and would answer questions. Occasionally No 10 would ring my private office and ask if there was anything that I wanted to raise. I presume they did this with others. I suspect they were embarrassed when meetings finished after 30 minutes and would therefore think up an issue for brief discussion at each meeting. Occasionally, people would express concern, or a little doubt about an issue raised, but only in a very mild way and others rarely took up such comments.

Sometimes, if a contentious issue was current, I would be invited to see Tony before the meeting, as he did not want dissent in the Cabinet because he would say it might leak. At the side of every cabinet meeting sat Alastair Campbell, Sally Morgan and Anji Hunter alongside the officials, and Jonathan Powell always sat behind Tony. Accounts of cabinet meetings were often given to the press. They frequently bore a limited resemblance to what had taken place and always painted a picture of a dominant Tony strongly supported by his admiring Cabinet.

I remember an extraordinary example of such briefing after the visit of the President of China, Jiang Zemin, in 1999. The visit provoked demonstrations across London over Tibet and human rights in China. We met with Jiang Zemin in the Cabinet room. The press reported that Tony had raised the issue of human rights, but I was at the meeting and Tony said nothing about human rights. But the press reported that he did and thus he was saved the embarrassment of having to do so in person.

IN SEPTEMBER 2001, Blair flew to Washington and then to Berlin and Paris, engaging in a whirlwind of activity. In my diary of 30 September, I wrote: 'TB quickly bestrode the world stage - shoulder to shoulder with the US. He loves such a role and is good at it. All of us were horrified by the events of September 11 but most decent people are very worried by the bellicose statements from Bush and fearful of the US lashing out and killing lots of innocent Afghans and making things worse.'

I said something similar in an interview, which caused a press flurry about splits in the Cabinet and inevitably meant I was briefed against by No 10 as "not long to stay in government". I received phone calls of concern from Jack Straw and John Prescott - Blair being in the US. Then I received a letter from Blair on 17 September saying he had read the transcript of my interview and could see that they had unfairly made mischief out of what I said. He went on to say none the less that "it is crucially important at this sensitive stage that all bids for interviews are cleared with No 10 and that we stick to a very tight line in such interviews. Otherwise we risk putting the whole operation at risk with serious consequences."

The question of how Tony Blair came to adopt such a misjudged policy towards Iraq is partly answered by analysing the nature of New Labour. New Labour was and is a ruthless, power-winning project. From the start it was obsessed with presentation rather than content and willing to be economical with the truth. New Labour was also the project of a small group that captured power in the Labour Party and had little respect for democratic and constitutional decision-making.

Blair's big Commons majorities have exacerbated this problem and, combined with the tradition of party loyalty, have led to a weakening of cabinet government and a marginalisation of Parliament.

As I said in my resignation statement: "The problem is the centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers who make decisions in private without proper discussion ... There is no real collective responsibility because there is no collective; just diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought-through policy initiatives that come from on high. "The consequences of that are serious. Expertise in our system lies in departments. Those who dictate from the centre do not have full access to that expertise and do not consult. That leads to bad policy."

The No 10 spin on any former minister that criticises the Government is that they are doing so because they are bitter. Thus all criticism is dismissed as badly motivated. In fact, the Iraq crisis makes me extremely sad rather than bitter but the more I read, the more stunned I was that our Prime Minister could take us to war in such a way. I believe this raises very serious questions for the Labour Party and British constitutional arrangements.

My sad conclusion is that the world is in deep trouble and that conflict and bloodshed are likely to continue for decades unless we can achieve a change of direction. The UK Government - a Labour government - has played a central role in the mistakes that have brought us here, and this has happened partly because British constitutional arrangements and the democracy of the Labour Party have been grossly undermined.

Abridged extract from An Honourable Deception? (Simon & Schuster, 2004) published on 1 November, 15. Clare Short 2004