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13 March 2000

Go on, Tony, take paternity leave

The PM should put his own government's policies into effect and take time off with his baby, argues

By George Lucas

As the weeks towards May and London’s mayoral elections unfold, with MORI personal approval ratings sagging (in the case of female voters almost into deficit), Tony Blair might reflect on ways to rekindle Labour’s – and the nation’s – spirits.

The imminent birth of the Blairs’ fourth child, also in early May, offers the Prime Minister a unique opportunity to re-inflame the nation’s passions by taking his full (Cabinet Office-approximated) entitlement of seven working days paid paternity leave. Blair has often spoken of his ambition to shape a radical new century. When one of the world’s most powerful men sets this kind of example, the impact on the workplace and parental leave will be immense.

Some might argue that Blair’s parental leave will show, as the former Downing Street official and now MP for Ashford Damian Green says, a “dereliction” of duty. Blair may also feel he cannot entrust the reins of government to senior colleagues. Yet a week of absence would allow him to put his money where his mouth is: on 9 March, after all, Blair hosted a VIP breakfast at No 10 to launch Labour’s “Work-Life Balance” initiative. The programme includes an employers’ forum, which will campaign to transform the workplace attitude towards employees seeking to take time off work.

To date, the moodshift has been more buzzword than policy: legal backing to the fine words was, in one negotiator’s words, “minimalist and mealy-mouthed”. Another commented on how women’s ministers had been shocked by the government’s final stipulation that parental leave for those with children under five would be unpaid. It would also be open only to those with children born since last December. It seems doubtful, then, that the VIP breakfast will be more than an exercise in PR. Unless, that is, the Prime Minister states that in order to support his wife and other three children he shall be taking his full quota of leave the moment his child arrives – and vanish for around ten days.

The terms of detachment would be those for any other senior manager in the land. John Prescott would chair the cabinet and perform in one, maybe two sessions of Prime Ministers’ Questions. There would be no meetings with foreign leaders. There would be no red boxes. In short, there would be, temporarily, no Blair. At all. There would be just a government running briefly on autopilot, a sign, many would argue, not of Prime Ministerial weakness but of fundamental strength.

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There are those who would worry about what would happen to Tony’s minders while he was off being an exemplary Papa: without their man, what would Ally and Mandy get up to? They wouldn’t lend their services to Prescott; to do so would be seen as a betrayal of their one true leader – and they would never wish to risk Tony’s wrath. But with time on their hands, the two inveterate conspirators are, some fear, bound to hatch a plot. Preferably against the Chancellor. Some jolly headlines could easily be prompted about those old “psychological flaws”, and some fun anecdotes could be manufactured to hurt the Treasury.

But apart from those who clearly fear the nuclear fallout that might result from the dynamic duo’s Machiavellian manipulations, the PM’s quality time with his newborn would be welcomed by those who have patiently negotiated on behalf of employees. Joanna Foster, former chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, says that such a dramatic step “would be brilliant”. It would “legitimise the issue” of balance between work and home “in a very strong way”. Frank Field, the former social security minister, sees it as a “really good opportunity”, especially “for a government that believes behaviour can be set by exhortation”. Blair can now show that the policy truly is “not do as I say but do as I do”.

The experience might indeed do him the power of good. It is time that the People’s Prime Minister renewed his mandate. Most British premierships have their very precisely crafted leitmotivs. Winston Churchill spent mournful afternoons painting landscapes. John Major spent outlandishly long hours lounging at cricket matches. Blair, instead, could forge a new status with his nursery-room residence – and, as a conscientious 21st-century father, he would humanise his image as a result. Activists would be cheered by the transmogrification of their newly paternal (if not paternalistic) leader. For Labour’s 101 female MPs, many quietly very effective but given few public fillips, it would be heartening proof that Westminster might slowly but surely take its lead from No 10 and come to recognise that parenthood might feature in a parliamentarian’s life.

The break, coming as it would in the politically charged month of May, would also ensure that Blair had some time to take stock, gain some perspective on everything from the mayoral tribulations to the future of the pound.

If Blair did dare to make the gesture, he would be remembered forever as the first male world leader to take such action. He would be stealing a march even on zestful Scandinavian maestros of radical social innovation. Britain’s Prime Minister may conceivably find himself at the start of a path that many believe he would like to tread, alongside the kind of Gandhi-Mandela class of special once-in-a-generation groundbreaking world statesmen.

In those few spring days in early May, there could be an awed, magical sunlit hush over Chequers, cloaking a globally discussed, never-before-seen phenomenon of a national leader putting family before power. People would speak for years afterwards of the time that the Blairs were there, still in office but blissfully incommunicado. Who knows? People may even start to miss him.

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