From the 1997 election archive: Interview with Tony Blair

“I don’t believe the polls. The Tories are like ferrets in a sack, but they won’t give up the keys to Downing Street without a fight.” - Tony Blair on 21 March 1997, just weeks away from election day.

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Near the entrance to the cramped suite of offices assigned to the leader of the opposition there are several layers of computers and files packed into boxes. At first it seems the “war on complacency” is no more than a facade, that behind the scenes Tony Blair is already preparing for the move to Downing Street. But one of Blair’s assistants assures us the change of location is to Millbank Towers, the party’s campaign headquarters. Almost the entire office will move there next week. She worked for Neil Kinnock in 1992, the assistant adds, and after that experience would never again take victory for granted.

This is the constant refrain of her leader, too. Our interview is on the day a Gallup poll gives Labour a 28-point lead and the Sun declares its support. There is no hint of triumphalism. Instead Blair’s attention has turned to another newspaper, the London Evening Standard, which has published 50 questions on Labour’s policies to which it seeks answers. Blair scrutinises them carefully; he wants them answered. Inevitably Labour’s formidable media machine has started preparing a response, as well as suggesting the paper prepares a similar list of questions for John Major to address.

The endorsement of the Standard, a strong possibility, has still to be won. But the bigger prize has been gained. Two years ago the most Blair had hoped for from the Sun was neutrality. What is his reaction to the more positive verdict?

“I was extremely pleased. It was very important. What it shows is that Sun readers are responding to our agenda on which we are campaigning. In some ways the Sun is acceding to the demands of its own readership.”

Some Labour MPs feel ambiguous about the Sun’s endorsement. They recognise the newspaper’s power, but despise what it stands for. Blair’s view is that it is a “powerful campaigning paper. But let me make it clear we’ve never traded policies with Rupert Murdoch in return for the support of his papers. In the past we believed we had unfair treatment in the press and, not unreasonably, some sections of the press felt they had a bad time with the trade unions. The relationship between the trade unions and Fleet Street was abysmal, let’s be honest.”

Even if there has been no trading of policies, Murdoch will be reassured by Blair’s attitude to his expanding media empire. No legislation will be introduced to curb his activities, merely a request for responsible behaviour. “It’s not a question of Murdoch being too powerful. He’s got a strong position and whatever authority or power he has needs to be exercised responsibility. I would like to see a situation where that happens not by legislation, but that people get a fair crack of the whip in the media.”

When asked how his policies differ from the Sun’s, he cites Europe. But for now he emphasises an agenda very similar to John Major’s, with the additional offer of “strong leadership”. “The Sun believes, as a lot of people do, that the most important thing on Europe is to get leadership. They come from a different perspective, but they want Britain to be a powerful player. We have a clear agenda – driving through the single market, reform of the CAP, enlargement of the EU – and broad group of people can support that.”

He does not mention the single currency as part of the “clear agenda”. His doubts about its timing appear to be stronger than ever. “It’s very difficult to judge. Political leaders are still saying it will go ahead on time, but I think there are lots of formidable obstacles. I think it’s extremely important it doesn’t happen on a basis which is unsustainable. But I would also say it would be foolish to declare we’re never going to join it.”

He hints at new alliances forming in Europe which will challenge the dominance of France and Germany. “I agree there is a problem for those who believe in greater co-operation in Europe, as I do, that there is only one direction in which it is being pushed at the moment. It could be pushed in a different direction. There is an understanding, particularly in the centre-left parties, that Europe has got to be more open and outward-looking.”

Gerhard Schröder, the Eurosceptic contender for the SPD leadership in Germany, it cited with approval. “He is talking about the problems of trying to push the pace of integration too fast in one direction.”

Blair stresses that building a different agenda in Europe would be “a complex and difficult process and that the pre-election atmosphere is not the best time to attempt it.”

Nor will the weeks leading up to the election be chosen as a time to indicate any policy shifts on electoral reform, but it is clear which way he leans. Earlier this month the joint talks on the constitutional programme between Labour and the Lib Dems agreed that the referendum will be a choice between first past the post and proportional system. Blair has not left himself the leeway of choosing a new voting system that is not proportional. He says the Alternative Vote is ruled out because “it’s not proportional”.

While a change of mind is possible, it seems Blair will stick with the current system. It is not easy to envisage an alternative that meets his criteria. Certainly no other option has attracted him so far. “I am not convinced of the case for change. It’s not a matter of theology, but it’s a question of whether you can get a better system. There have been many attempts to find one, but you’ve got to come up with one which produces strong government, which is not at the behest of small minorities. And you’ve got to have a system where there’s a link between a constituency and an MP.”

Another area of uncertainty has been precisely who will be in Blair’s first cabinet. Some frontbenchers have raised in private the possibility of a significant purge of the shadow cabinet, to be replaced by more “Blairites” and, possibly, Paddy Ashdown. This seems highly unlikely. “I am happy to abide by the party rule that members of the shadow cabinet become the basis of the cabinet. Of course a number of cabinet portfolios have already been determined. We will make the decision as to the rest of the cabinet on the basis of the party rule and one the basis of what we are permitted to do with the numbers in the cabinet.”

As there are fewer places in the cabinet than in the shadow cabinet this suggests a small number of the shadow cabinet will not get cabinet rank, but that no outsiders will be brought in.

Blair argues that Labour is providing more detailed policies than is usual in opposition. But he is quite open about the fact that there are gaps in several sensitive areas. On several occasions he states that this is “something for government, not opposition”. Nowhere is this more the case than over welfare reform.

“The modernised welfare state must be founded on rights and responsibilities, where large numbers are not on welfare when they can work – the young and long-term unemployed, for example. We have certain proposals for pension provision, but in this area the detail will be worked at in government.”

He is highly critical of Peter Lilley’s proposed pension reforms, but grateful that the government has belatedly raised the issue. “I resisted all the demands within the party to keep the system as it is, but the reform has to be right. Peter Lilley showed that if you take people by surprise they are so stunned by the boldness they don’t bother to look at the details: there will be no saving on welfare spending for 40 years; indeed, there will be higher spending for 40 years. That’s not a sensible balance between the later generations and today’s generations. We will consider a lot of this in government, but we have our own proposals for a funded second pension. I’m quite open about the need for pension reform, but it’s something we will have to look at in detail in government.”

The degree to which policy detail is made available is a political art for opposition parties. There has to be enough to be credible, but not too much to alienate potential support. “If we had published Lilley’s proposals we would have been torn to shreds by the media and the Tories alike. They would have presented it as Labour’s plans for massive tax increases. So you’ve got to be cautious.”

Caution is the watchword at all times. He returns to a familiar theme when asked to comment on the unofficial leadership content in the Tory party which is running in parallel with the election campaign. “Yes, the Tories are fighting like ferrets in a sack, but complacency is the absolute danger of the Labour Party. This election is not yet won. I discount the polls. I don’t believe them. I think it’s going to be a far tighter and harder race than they suggest. These people have won four elections in a row and they are not going to hand over the keys of Downing Street without a fight.”

The words of warning out of the way, he delivers an assessment of the Tory party that many Conservative MPs would privately agree with. “The Tory party is in the same position as Labour in the early eighties. Then, as with the Conservatives now, the disunity is a symptom of a fundamental disagreement and therefore you couldn’t simply respond to messages to unite. We had to make a choice between modernisation and a traditional socialist programme. You went one way or the other. It was only when Labour decided to opt for modernisation that unity became possible. The problem with Major is that he has not offered the Tories a decision and as a leader you’ve got to do that.”

He does not know whether the Conservatives will split after the election, but reveals that some Tory MPs are privately hoping for a Labour win. “It is quite extraordinary when I hear Conservative MPs sidling up to some of our MPs and saying, “I can’t say this publicly, but the best of luck.”

Blair hopes to pace himself during the long campaign. “I certainly intend to spend some time with my family, if that’s not the wrong way of putting it.”

After a recent lengthy interview with Jeremy Paxman, Blair said in “an unguarded moment” that a six-week campaign would drive people crazy. He laughs and says, “I was so stunned by Jeremy’s line of questioning [at one point Blair was asked what he felt about an article of his in the Sun appearing next to a topless woman]. It was very funny, an eccentric interview. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Jeremy pulls these extraordinary faces at you as you’re being interviewed. It’s very funny.”

But he stands by his unguarded observation. “The idea we should be at it from six in the morning to midnight every day from now until polling day would make everyone go mad.”

But Blair will not be away long from the campaign trail. He has had to wait a considerable time for this moment, much longer than Harold Wilson after he became leader in 1963, following Hugh Gaitskell’s unexpected death. There is a sense of relief now the election has finally been called, but there are other emotions, too. “There is a great sense of responsibility, some excitement and exhilaration at the prospect of fighting it and, we hope, fighting to win. You get a sense of humility as well about this process. You go out into the country and see all these people with massive hopes invested in you. It’s a strange feeling.”

This article is part of the New Statesman's 1997 election archive, New Dawn. Click here for the full collection.