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14 February 2000

The secret world of Tony Blair

Deeply religious, but protective about it; ruthless, but cuddly with it. Michael Cockerell unravels

By Michael Cockerell

There is something about Tony Blair that brings out the beast in middle-aged media men. In reviewing What Makes Tony Tick?, the BBC documentary I made to mark his 1,000th day in office, critics laid into the Prime Minister.

According to them, Blair emerged variously as: a) “combining the self-deprecating charm of an Irish simpleton with superhuman political skills and the decisive ruthlessness of a night-club bouncer”; b) “an oleaginous, duplicitous douche-bag, with the manner of a Californian plastic surgeon and the sincerity of a Cairo carpet salesman”; and c) “a thoroughly good man without human blemish and motivated only by altruism: Saatchi’s could not have done a better job”.

My view was different. I thought he came out as an intelligent figure, prepared to talk reasonably frankly about himself and his job. But then, according to the critics, I was little more than a deferential sycophant, who had clearly made a Faustian pact with Alastair Campbell.

In fact, it had taken me five years to get agreement to make the programme and any access we had was painfully wrung out of a reluctant No 10, almost frame by frame. Campbell did not try to impose any conditions, nor did he inquire what questions I would ask. Blair gave us a recorded interview that we could cut as we liked, and No 10 knew nothing of others we would interview. No previous prime minister has taken such a risk.

From watching earlier interviews with Blair, it was clear to me that the heavy approach made him suspicious and defensive, drawing forth only tired old statistics and assertions. I tried to have an intelligent conversation and not to treat Blair as if he were a war criminal or a prating hypocrite. A A Gill of the Sunday Times seemed to realise what I was doing: “Cockerell just handed out the rope and gave quiet encouragement in knot-tying. Blair did the rest.”

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I asked him, for example, about his faith. Peter Thomson, the minister of the Anglican Church of Australia whom he met at Oxford and who had such a profound influence on his thinking, has said: “Tony Blair didn’t have political ambitions at that stage; in fact, all the time we were at Oxford, I thought he might have easily gone into the Church.”

Blair demurred when I put this to him, but he said: “Peter Thomson was very important because he reconciled what was a growing political awareness with my religious belief.” The PM then stopped talking and shifted uneasily on his sofa. I asked him why he seemed so uncomfortable when talking about his faith. “Because you get completely misconstrued when you do. Either people think you are trying to wear God on your sleeve or paint God into the picture – and most people find that distasteful, including me. Or alternatively, it is somehow taken that you don’t have a political grounding; well, I do have a political grounding.

“I am a practising Christian and that’s part of me – there’s no point in denying it; but I suppose that what I drew from Peter Thomson is the idea that your religious belief wasn’t something that shut you away from the world but something that meant that you had to go out and act.”

His Christianity remains one of the keys to Tony Blair. His former press secretary, Tim Allan, tells how Blair would travel with his bible among his papers and would become nearly frantic on a Sunday if it looked as if he might miss Holy Communion. He still prays every day. And, last year, he took a book on theology as part of his Tuscan holiday reading.

What makes this professed commitment to moral values hard to take for many people is that Blair keeps company with both God and Mammon. Soon after he became Labour leader, Blair attended a series of private dinners at safe houses in ritzy parts of London. There he met captains of industry, in a successful attempt to convince the tycoons, many of them Tory, that new Labour was a business-friendly party from which they had nothing to fear.

The organiser of the dinners – Lord (Dennis) Stevenson, now chairman of the Pearson media group and the Halifax building society, and not a Labour Party member – says of Blair: “He is morally driven. He is highly intelligent, brighter than he comes across, because he seems so normal. He is a good communicator, rather cuddly. And he is completely ruthless – not in a pejorative sense, but he really goes for what he believes in. I mean, to have that combination of qualities and not look like a ruthless shit – perhaps I should think of a better word – that is a good recipe for a leader, particularly a political leader.”

Blair took office determined to increase the power of No 10 over the Whitehall departments. His chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, had told a private seminar just before the election: “We plan to have a Napoleonic system to replace the system of feudal baronies.” And Blair has been as good as Powell’s word, significantly increasing staff numbers and the political fire-power of both No 10 and the Cabinet Office – although, in numbers and resources, they remain puny compared to even the lowliest ministry.

The command model of the premiership has been something that many previous prime ministers have dreamed of; but according to the academic doyen of Whitehall-watchers, Peter Hennessy, there has been a decisive change under Blair. “One of his ministers told me that the two most powerful words in Whitehall are ‘Tony wants’,” says Hennessy, “and that is absolutely true: it has been from minute one, and it’s still true after 1,000 days. So if the Prime Minister’s people go round, they can really shake trees, and people get jumpy, ministers worry for their positions, permanent secretaries think they have to come to an accommodation.

“But the real hidden wiring . . . is the agreements the Prime Minister concludes with every cabinet minister individually each year ahead for their aims and objectives that year; and – this is even more amazing – with the permanent secretaries of all the main departments. We’ve never seen such a tangible instrument and extension of prime ministerial power, as this before.”

When I put Hennessy’s analysis to Blair, he replied: “It’s not that I want everything done via me, but we have a programme and it’s my job as Prime Minister to deliver it. And so inevitably if you don’t have a strong centre, and you’re not keeping focused on what’s happening in departments, then you’re not running the government properly. The single most difficult thing about government is getting from the stage of having an idea to pushing it through the system: and you have to keep on it the whole time.

“But I think there’s a dichotomy here that is false really, because most ministers want the support of the centre in driving their programme through. But the idea that I – for example in education or in health or in the Treasury – just issue edicts or diktats from No 10 that others carry out is absurd. I have a feeling that if you have a strong idea of what you want to do, and believe in pushing it through, then you’re a – in inverted commas – dictator, and if you’re not then you’re weak. And you pays your money and you takes your choice on that one.”

Blair then went on to answer a question I had not asked him: the idea that the cabinet had become something of a cypher, with meetings shorter and more perfunctory than ever before. “I mean, this idea – in relation to cabinet government – that I don’t discuss things with ministers is just not true. Look, I would be pretty shocked if the first time I knew a cabinet minister felt strongly about something was if they raised it at the cabinet table – I would expect them to come and knock on my door and say: ‘Look Tony I’ve got a problem here – I disagree with this or I disagree with that.’ And that happens from time to time, and then you sit down and you work it out. But the old days of Labour governments where cabinet meetings occasionally went on for two days and you had a show of hands at the end of it – I shudder to think what would happen if we were running it like that.”

The moment that was perhaps most revealing of Blair came last month at a Labour question-and-answer meeting when a well-spoken, middle-aged woman of the type that Jack Straw would label a “Hampstead intellectual” said: “Social services budgets have been cut; pensioners are worse off; you introduced the minimum wage, but you don’t raise it; and yet did you not spend the whole social service budget per night on bombing Kosovo?”

She had clearly hit a raw Prime Ministerial nerve. Blair listed the things the government had done to help the poorer sections of society: the minimum wage, the winter allowance for pensioners, the largest increase in child benefit ever, the working families tax credit and the New Deal. Then he turned the full force of his scorn on the woman who had said she would no longer vote Labour: “We have done all that, but lots of people like you say because it’s not perfect, you’ve done nothing and therefore I’m walking away from it – it’s pathetic. And as for this rubbish that we took the whole of the social services budget and blew it on Kosovo – first of all, the figures are nonsense; secondly, I want to tell you this about Kosovo. I think the day that this movement, with its values, when we could do something about it, would walk away from the worst case of ethnic cleansing and racial genocide since the second world war, then we’d have something to be ashamed of.”

Blair returned to his seat red with righteous indignation. Both No 10 and William Hague’s office told me that it was the best moment of the documentary. One said it showed a passionate side of Blair that voters never see, the other that it showed weakness to attack his own supporters: “William would never do that.”

As so often, Blair had refuted Pavlov: the same stimulus had produced opposite reactions in people. It is one of the things that make him such a rich field for study.

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