d Balls, former shadow chancellor, current TV celebrity and visiting professor at King’s College London, came to talk to students on the “Blair Years” course last month. He delivered a brilliant seminar on the nature of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and argued that, although there was conflict, it strengthened the government. Speaking just a few days before Boris Johnson forced out his chancellor, Balls offered a preview of the arguments about the balance of power between No 10 and the Treasury.
He said that “the tension and the grit” between Blair and Brown in government “was most of the time productive”. Above all, “the thing which they were really good at was stopping each other doing stupid things. And that’s really important. I remember Tony at one point wants to abolish capital gains and inheritance tax. And we called in and said that’s a really bad idea. And we stopped it. Or Gordon will have some crazy idea and Tony will say, ‘I’m really sorry, we’re not going to do that.’ But the number of things they did together that were bad ideas was actually quite small.”
He compared the Blair-Brown relationship with that between David Cameron and George Osborne: “George Osborne thought a referendum on membership of the European Union was a bad idea, and decided he would defer to David Cameron as the prime minister, because he was his friend, and he was the prime minister, so it wasn’t his job to challenge him. That was a catastrophic piece of statesmanship. George Osborne’s responsibility, constitutionally, was to stop David Cameron doing stupid things.”
Speaking to the class of postgraduate students I teach with Michelle Clement and Jon Davis – most of the class having been born after Blair became prime minister – he said: “Tony never thought that changing his chancellor would help” – unlike Boris Johnson, who seems to have deliberately engineered Sajid Javid’s resignation by saying he wanted to sack the Treasury’s political advisers.
According to Balls, Blair and Brown were different: “The personal relationship was deeper and more long lasting than people understand, but with some dysfunction, about who is the older; who is the most experienced; who is senior; who’s abusing who. Undoubtedly both of them thought they were in an abusive relationship. But maybe the nature of politics is that it’s hard to be friends. It’s sometimes abusive but, despite that, it can lead to better outcomes.”
He compared Blair with Theresa May: “She made a terrible mistake when she became prime minister, of not having the strongest people around her, because she put weaker people into key jobs thinking they would fail. In the end, she failed.
“If you go back to Harold Wilson, his great strength as prime minister was that he never put the second-rate people in the top jobs, he put the best people in the top jobs. He always knew that politics was complicated. It was far more factional and tense in parliament in those periods, partly because the majority was smaller.
“I mean, look at the skill with which Attlee managed Morrison and Bevin and Dalton. The nature of great leadership is you put in the best people, deal with the fallout and hold it together. And the weak thing to do is to ignore delivery, and go for an easy life or the best personal outcome. If you do that things tend to fail.”
He had begun the class by going back to the beginning of the Blair-Brown partnership, and by comparing their case for modernising Labour with the current debate in the party: “Between ’92 and ’94, when John Smith was leader of the Labour Party, both of them shared this deep frustration. They were frustrated that John Smith – he was a great man, John Smith, but he decided if he’d been the leader [instead of Neil Kinnock], Labour would have won in 1992, and therefore nothing else really needed to change because he was now the leader. Tony and Gordon had this much deeper analysis, that the problems are more longstanding.
“It’s a bit like there are some people in the modern Labour Party who will say we had a good manifesto [in 2019], it was just the wrong leader; and other people will say the manifesto was a problem as well. John Smith supported the ‘manifesto was fine but it was the wrong leader’ camp; and Gordon and Tony had the analysis that the manifesto wasn’t good enough either.”
When Smith died in 1994, the Blair-Brown partnership was suddenly recalibrated, with the junior partner becoming the senior, and the seed of conflict sown for the next 13 years. The founding event of that new relationship was a dinner at Granita, the north London restaurant, at which Brown confirmed that he would stand aside for Blair in the leadership election.
Balls was at the restaurant that fateful day: “I left quite quickly because I wasn’t really supposed to be there.” Anji Hunter, Blair’s adviser, had arranged “this big head-to-head dinner to map out the next 15 years of Labour politics”, and Brown’s “shyness, the slight loneliness”, meant he had said to Balls: “I think you need to come.”
Balls said: “So I turned up, and I mean, I was the spare part at this dinner, you wouldn’t believe it. My main role is to explain to Gordon – it was in a fancy restaurant in Islington, and Gordon didn’t recognise anything on the menu. He said he wasn’t going to eat octopus; carpaccio was foreign to him; and he said to me, ‘What is polenta?’ So we had an agreement; I said to Gordon, ‘I will meet you back in Victoria in an hour and a half,’ and I went back and ordered steak and chips and waited for him to arrive.
“But anyway, they have this conversation. And the conversation is about dealing with the shock of this moment, the turning upside down of who’s in charge, the fact that Tony was in a stronger position to win, and Gordon was accepting that.
“There is a bit of history of Gordon, or people around Gordon, saying if Gordon wanted to he could have won, but my personal view is that is garbage. I don’t think Gordon could have beaten Tony, at that time, but what they do is they define this partnership.
“There is a view, which I don’t agree with, that at Granita they sat down and made a deal about the leadership succession,” said Balls. “At that point, Gordon Brown’s point of view was that these guys have been in opposition for 11 years, they’re trying to win an election, and what Gordon cares about is power, partnership and control.
“The actual deal at Granita is that it is agreed that Gordon will have control of economic and social policy. He doesn’t just think of that as being about policy and ideas, but also about people. Gordon thinks he will have the ability to influence key jobs; that he will be able to make speeches across portfolios; and that is all agreed with Tony. These were the seeds of the problems that come later. The problems in the Blair-Brown relationship at Granita were much more about personnel and decision-making than they are anything to do with leadership succession.”
On the other hand, said Balls: “It is absolutely true that Tony is saying to Gordon, ‘Look, I’m not going to be prime minister for ever if we win. At a certain point, when there’s a transition, I’ll support you.’ He gives the impression that that transition will occur at some point because … he feels he needs to keep Gordon on board. And Gordon hears that and later banks it and kind of uses it.”
This led to the kind of jostling between teams of political advisers that was depicted in The Thick of It. One of the students asked if The Thick of It was true to life. Balls said: “The truth is, I’ve seen all of The West Wing; I’ve seen all of Yes, Minister; but I’ve never really watched The Thick of It. Because I don’t actually find it funny. The reason I don’t find it funny is because it’s too close to the bone.”
Despite that, his conclusion was that people will see – “in time, if they’re wise” – that the Blair-Brown relationship was “more functional and effective than maybe it felt at the time”.
He said that Cameron and Osborne learned the wrong lessons from Blair, because they were influenced by what he wrote in his memoir, after he had been in government, instead of by what he did when he was actually in power. “Tony Blair becomes prime minister in ’97, and he finally writes a book in 2010, in which he says, ‘I should have been more radical from the outset; I should not have listened to my chancellor; I shouldn’t have been cautious.’
“And David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove read this book and think, ‘We should be radical in the way Tony Blair told us we should have been.’ So they win the election in 2010. They go straight into a spending review. They announce all this crazy stuff, abolishing the Forestry Commission, the massive reforms of the NHS, the 20 per cent cut in police numbers. And they then spend most of the rest of that parliament reversing all these crazy things that they couldn’t actually deliver.”
They should have learned a very different lesson from what Blair did at the start of his time as prime minister, Balls said. “Tony had the foresight to realise, when he came into power in ’97, as did Gordon, that they didn’t really know what they were doing. The learning curve was huge, and therefore they should be really careful. So in health, the reason they made Frank Dobson secretary of state for health was that Frank could basically hold it together, reassure people and give people time to work out what works.”
The reason for the commitment to stick to Conservative spending plans for the first two years of the Labour government “was about buying time”, Balls said.
“A couple of things that we did start – there was a thing called the Horizon project, which was automating post offices, announced very quickly in ’97 – ended up having to be ditched because they were ridiculous. We moved ahead on the plan for the Tube [the London Underground], but that turned out to be very messy.
“So Tony Blair in ’97 was absolutely right. In government what you do is more important than what you say, and if you get things wrong, people notice that more than the things you’ve got right. You should be really careful not to make mistakes early, because you don’t know what you’re doing. You build your radicalism over time.
“It’s only having gone through that experience that he could write his book in 2010. The thing which David Cameron should have realised in 2010 is you shouldn’t listen to what Tony said in 2010, because he could only say that having been prime minister for 10 years. If Tony Blair had already been prime minister for 10 years and Gordon had been chancellor for 10 years in 1997, it’d be quite right to be more radical, but they hadn’t.”
Balls also had a lot to say about the current state of the Labour Party, although he refused to be drawn on whom he supported in the current leadership election. I asked him if Gordon Brown was to blame for the trajectory that led the party to Jeremy Corbyn, in that Brown backed Ed Miliband for the leadership, and Miliband paved the way for Corbyn.
He answered the long way round: “There were three big issues in the 2001 parliament. There’s one big argument about the euro, which turned out not to have any great lasting political significance. There was one great argument about foreign policy and Iraq. Where actually Gordon and Tony were in not full agreement, but in quite close agreement, which has had a huge, long-lasting impact on British politics.
“And the third was around public service reform. Where I didn’t think there were often big differences when it came to it, in what the actual policy was going to be. But Tony and the people around him absolutely chose to define reform and modernisation in a way which was seen as very critical of public service workers and the public sector and very pro the use of the private sector. That was much more about politics and positioning than it was actually about substance.
“I wrote a pamphlet for Gordon in 1995 where he advocated graduates paying a contribution for their fees. It was Gordon and John Prescott who championed the private finance initiative [PFI]. In that period, fights on policy were picked for definitional reasons, which went way beyond policy and were about positioning. There is a lasting legacy about and scepticism of the Blair-Brown years within the labour movement and the trade union movement, which goes back to that as much as to foreign policy.
“You then have a massive financial crisis, and the debates which happen around neoliberalism. You then have Ed Miliband and his catastrophic decision in September 2010, once he becomes leader, to define himself against the past Labour government, which is a killing thing to do, because if you don’t own your history, it is very hard to persuade people to trust you again.”
Finally, he answered the question: “To the extent that Gordon Brown helped make that happen, you’re absolutely right. And then you have the change in the electoral college – Gordon would have been as against that as any sensible person.” But to heap all the blame on Brown was “destructively factional and foolish”.
He said the important lesson of that period was for the party to understand its history: “When I look over that period, we’re now in a position where it’s not possible to be a candidate for the Labour leadership having served in the New Labour governments of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, because it’s so unpopular, and I think the sensible New Labour thing to do is to say that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown together bear some responsibility for that.”
Much of the problem, he said, lies in the party’s assumption that its leaders will betray it, which goes back to the collapse of the Labour government after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and Ramsay MacDonald’s decision in 1931 to form a National Government with the Conservatives.
“When we went into government in 1997,” said Balls, “the biggest problem we had with the party was the members assumed they were going to be betrayed, because they always were. The folk memory of 1929 and MacDonald and Snowden and the betrayal, and in the end the National Government, and this idea that in government Labour always ducks it. The disputes with the trade unions in the Seventies probably fall into the same category. So there was something in the psyche and history of the Labour Party, which means that people are waiting for the betrayal.
“Then the financial crisis is just such a massive event, and put those things together, that is quite challenging. It was a huge challenge to fight against the idea, after 2010, that the Labour government had betrayed people. We’ve now spent nine years as a party telling people that they were betrayed, which means of course they now think as a country that they were.”
In government, Labour got NHS waiting times down from 18 months to 18 weeks, said Balls, “but it’s all forgotten because you spent nine years telling everybody that Labour didn’t make any difference and it was just a Tory government.”
His view was strikingly similar to the sentiment expressed by Andrew Adonis, the Blairite former minister who came to the class two weeks later, although Adonis phrased it more provocatively, saying: “Labour will only become electable again when it comes to love Tony Blair.”
Balls, on the other hand, referred to Zarah Sultana’s first speech as an MP, in which the Corbyn supporter said she hoped in 10 years’ time to look back on the end of “40 years of Thatcherism”, which not only included the whole New Labour government as part of “Thatcherism”, but dated the start of Thatcherism to 1990, the year in which Thatcher fell: “What was that ridiculous speech by the backbencher about 40 years of Thatcherism? I mean, what a fool! Doesn’t she want to win? You can’t win if your history is the history of betrayal. It took a war and service in a wartime coalition for Attlee to bring Labour back to a winnable position in 1945, given the betrayal of 16 years before.
“The Tories are really good at creating history. How many times do you hear Boris Johnson – he’s very skilful at the moment because he manages to talk as if the last nine years of Conservative premiership didn’t happen – how many times do you ever hear him talk about the betrayal of the ERM in 1992? Margaret Thatcher is talked of in a positive way, despite some of the things that happened which meant they got rid of her, because they curate their history; because they know they need that to win again.
“What does Labour do? It just dumps on it. It’s crackers.”