Padraig Colman

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The Blair Years Part Six

Colman's Column3Sleaze and Achievements

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bernie-ecclestone-and-slavica-ecclestone

Much of the reason for the voters’ distaste for the Major administration was because of the “sleaze factor” but the new administration itself became besmirched in its very first year. Labour had pledged to ban tobacco advertising. Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone had donated a million pounds to the Labour Party and this came to look like a bribe when health minister Tessa Jowell, who was fiercely anti-tobacco, was forced to argue the case for exempting Formula One from tobacco advertising restrictions. Blair apologized and the money was returned but it was later proved that he lied about the timing of decisions in this matter.

tessa

The Hinduja Foundation is back in the news after promising to contribute £3.5m to the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Back in 2000 the Hinduja Brothers donated £ one million to the Millennium Project and brought about the resignation of Peter Mandelson in their quest for British citizenship. The Hinduja passport applications also affected Keith Vaz, a junior minister for Europe, whose wife ran a company that advised on applications for British citizenship, which had received money from the Hinduja Foundation.

Elizabeth Filkin, who was Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards between February 1999 and 2002, was subject to a venomous whispering campaign and one political reporter was told she was a “mad alcoholic”. Filkin resigned in December 2002, complaining about the “quite remarkable” vitriol from the Labour MPs she investigated, including Geoffrey Robinson and Keith Vaz.  Vaz is known to Sri Lankans as an LTTE sympathiser and is, as I write, again under a cloud following allegations relating to rent boys and drugs.

Lord Cashpoint

One of the consequences of Blair’s “success” in getting rid of Clause IV was that the trade unions, who had once been the mainstay of Labour Party finances, were no longer inclined to be so generous with funding. New Labour had an enduring problem raising enough cash with which to fight elections. It was alleged that Lord Levy (formerly a pop music entrepreneur whose stable included Alvin Stardust and Chris Rea) was tasked with raising funds for the party and was offering knighthoods and peerages in return. Levy became known as Lord Cashpoint.

levy-eye

Blair himself was interviewed by police. He and the Labour party were not exonerated from acting illegally. The decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to proceed was made solely on the basis of a lack of evidence and an assessment of the likelihood of a conviction. Some of the police officers involved in the inquiry claim there was political pressure applied to them and that some of the politicians interviewed were less than helpful.

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Messiah, Mafia and Porn King

Broken Vows is a recent illuminating (although not beyond criticism) biography of Tony Blair by Tom Bower. Bower also wrote a biography of someone whose support Blair sought – Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Express newspaper.  In 1982, Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, began to publish the UK edition of the soft-porn magazine Penthouse, including Forum (for which Alistair Campbell once wrote). The company soon moved on to publishing a range of adult (sic) titles, including Asian BabesBig Ones, Eros, Horny Housewives, Only 18 and Mothers-in-Law.

John Sweeney wrote in the London Observer in May 2001 that Desmond had made a deal in 1991 for running advertisements in his “adult” titles for telephone sex lines run by Richard Martino of the Gambino crime family. In October 1992, Desmond’s then managing director, Philip Bailey, had a Taser applied to his testicles in New York as an explicit threat to Desmond himself. Desmond hired James Brown, a convicted criminal, as his bodyguard. An associate of Brown’s has claimed that bags containing £2 million were delivered to an Italian restaurant in Soho, London, to settle the issue with the Gambinos

Blair’s interest in this model citizen was sparked by Desmond’s acquisition of the Express. Blair invited Desmond to meet him at Number 10.  Desmond claimed to be a socialist and donated £100,000 to the Labour Party. Blair did not know that Desmond had also contributed to the Conservative Party and had ordered the editor of his pornographic magazine Readers’ Wives to “put Cherie Blair on the front cover”. Stupidly, Labour spent £120,000 (more than the size of Desmond’s donation) on buying campaign adverts in Desmond’s papers.

desmond-eye

Mandelson, Blunkett

Peter Mandelson was renowned for his manipulative Machiavellian skills but had a tin ear about his own actions. He bought a home in 1996, partly with an interest-free loan of £373,000 from Geoffrey Robinson, a cabinet colleague and millionaire whose business dealings were subject to an inquiry by Mandelson’s own department. Mandelson failed to declare the loan in the Register of Members’ Interests, or to his building society. He did not believe he had done anything wrong but his evasions embarrassed the prime minister who persuaded him to resign in in December 1998.  He came back to the Cabinet after ten months. In October 1999, he was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. On 24 January 2001, Mandelson resigned for a second time, following his involvement in the Hinduja passport scandal.

David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary on 15 December 2004 after allegations that he helped fast-track the renewal of a work permit for his ex-lover’s nanny. Following the 2005 general election Blunkett was returned to the cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He was ousted again because of a directorship in a company proposing to bid for government contracts to provide paternity tests to the Child Support Agency (CSA) – part of his department.

Caplingate

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Although Blair used the media relentlessly for his own ends, Mrs Blair resented intrusions of privacy and did not try to hide her contempt, which was reciprocated by the press. Cherie had asked her “lifestyle advisor”, Carole Caplin, to find her property in which to invest in Bristol where her son was going to university.

chercaplin

Caplin’s boyfriend, Peter Foster, helped to find two flats and got a discount of £40,000 by mentioning the Blairs. Foster had been convicted in Australia of fraud. Cherie lied to Blair about this and the lies were passed on to the press, causing the prime minister great embarrassment.

Carole Caplin and Peter Foster in grabs from BBC documnetary called " The Conman, his Lover and the Prime Minister's Wife " 15/02/03 for paul

Carole Caplin and Peter Foster 

Achievements

Despite the sleaze and the disappointments, Blair did transform the Labour Party and presided over three consecutive general election victories, a feat which had eluded every previous Labour leader. The UK did generally become a more comfortable place to be after ten years of Blair. New Labour adopted the EU social chapter, introduced a minimum wage, reduced child poverty, shifted state aid from the middle class, increased taxes on the better-off, concentrated considerable resources into deprived areas and used windfall profits from the privatised utilities to create job and training opportunities. A five-year homelessness strategy was effective. Government figures published in 2005 showed homelessness acceptances had fallen by nearly 7,000 on the previous year.

I cannot do justice here to Blair’s impressive achievement on Northern Ireland. I recommend two books by people who followed the process step by painful step. Deaglán de Bréadún was Political Correspondent with the Irish Times. His daily coverage of the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was published in a book, The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland which is essential reading. In Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, gives an insider’s account.

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Blair’s success with Northern Ireland was due to his faults as well as his strengths. He was determined to look at Northern Ireland afresh, free from the received wisdom of his predecessors. Ignorance and naivete were assets in this case, helping him to resolve a situation that history seemed to have made intractable. It was a tribute to Blair’s doggedness, communication skills, resilience and creativity that he persuaded Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness not only to govern together but even to become friends. McGuinness wept when Paisley died.

chuckle-bros

Michael Burleigh adds the caveat about the Northern Ireland triumph: “Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell … were surely influenced by their triumph amid the steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone to scale up to the mosques of Basra, Baghdad and Ramadi?”

 

Next week – Blair’s later career.

The Blair Years Part Five

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday 17 November 2016 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=9430

 

Colman's Column3

The War with Gordon Brown

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While journalists and biographers have done much to illuminate the strange psyche of Gordon Brown, there is only one writer who could have done him justice- William Shakespeare. There are countless anecdotes about Brown’s rages during which he hurled expletives and inanimate objects. Tessa Jowell, one of the more placid members of the Cabinet, was provoked into shouting at Brown: “Don’t you ever f****ing speak to me like that again.” Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon groaned, “Why can’t he behave like a human being?”

 

“From day one, it was terrible,” says Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff. In the early days of the new government, one of the most senior figures in Number 10 (not Peter Mandelson) said, “You know Gordon. He feels so vulnerable and so insecure. He has these psychological flaws.”  Peter Mandelson once remarked to Blair that he should put a sign up on his desk with the inscription: “Remember: The Chancellor is mad”.

 

Blair’s team of advisors and Brown’s were in a constant state of warfare. According to Jonathan Powell, “Gordon had a very strong field of gravity. People became infected by his paranoia. Working for Gordon did something to people”. A senior civil servant commented: “The people around Brown were pretty ruthless”.

 

Blair and Brown

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I was in the House of Commons on July 27 1983, to hear Gordon Brown’s maiden speech. The speech was impressive in a dour kind of way, showing a great deal of sympathy for the downtrodden in his constituency. He shared a Westminster office with a newly-elected MP from the Sedgefield constituency, Tony Blair. When Labour leader John Smith died in 1994, Blair was shadow home secretary and Brown shadow chancellor. The legend has it that on 31 May, Blair and Brown met at the Granita restaurant in Islington, where Brown is said to have agreed to step aside on the understanding that Blair would one day stand down in favour of Brown. Throughout Blair’s premiership, Brown would shout at Blair: “When are you going to f*** off!”

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Financial Wizard

 

Brown liked to portray himself as more socialist than Blair. His record as Chancellor does not support this. Soon after taking office in 1997, the new administration announced, with Brown’s agreement, that it would be continuing Conservative economic policies. Brown wrote: “I wanted to preserve Thatcher’s competitive tax rates. I wanted wealthy people to feel welcomed in the UK”. The Chancellor’s new tax rates favoured speculators, tax-avoiders and the super-rich. According to Tom Bower: “Blair’s grasp on the effect of Brown’s policies on British industry, the City or the economy was indiscernible”. However, Blair realised that whatever about Brown’s self-image as “prudent”, he was spending too much. Blair did not realise how ignorant Brown was about markets and balance sheets or warnings about the property bubble and the effects of deregulation.

 

 

Obstruction

 

Brown, like a sulky child, hindered many policy initiatives, not because he had any rational case against them, but simply because Blair wanted them. Andrew Rawnsley comments, “Brown did not offer much by way of an alternative vision or theory of reform. He just knew what he didn’t like. What he didn’t like was anything coming from Blair”. A Treasury minister commented that “Gordon thought that Tony was shallow. By definition, any idea coming from Tony had to be reckless and unworkable because it was Tony’s idea”. Brown said “Tony doesn’t think more than an inch deep”. There countless stories of Brown refusing to attend important meetings. When he did attend, he would not contribute, spending the whole time working on his own papers.

 

There are also countless tales of Brown interfering in the remit of other ministers. The NHS will serve as the prime example. Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, was incandescent when Brown, without consultation, announced his own NHS review and made critical remarks about the health service’s performance. Milburn complained to Blair that Brown “saw it as his right to trample on everyone else’s territory”.  On health and education, the chancellor adamantly opposed creeping privatisation of services at the same time as being a fervent proponent of public private finance initiatives (PFI) to fund the building of NHS hospitals. Let the sewage flooding the operating theatres at the brand-new Carlisle hospital stand as a telling symbol of PFI.

 

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/the-healthcare-business-in-the-uk/

 

My Indecision is Final

 

Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson said, “I had Permanent Secretaries wanting decisions and we couldn’t give them because Blair and Brown were in a row. Issues stacked up like aircraft over Heathrow”. Like so many others, Wilson found it difficult to decide what Blair wanted because there was no defined objective, only generalities like “reforming the public services”. Wilson’s request for Blair to explain his message received at best idealistic verbiage.

Sir Richard Wilson

Sir Richard Wilson

Rawnsley quotes one of Blair’s closest advisors: “Tony sits there at the Monday morning strategy meetings screaming: ‘What are we doing about health? What are we doing about crime? What are we doing about transport? And nothing happening.’”

 

Blair put on a good public performance after the London bombings but someone who saw his performance at the Cobra meetings said, “He didn’t understand the machine of which he was the master, so he got in the way of getting what he needed.”

 

New Ways of Governing

 

In 1997, Blair was a complete novice to government, as also was Gordon Brown. Neither of them had managed anything except a political party. The prime minister’s apathy about organisation and management was incurable.  Officials at Number 10 had a set ritual for welcoming a new prime minister. Blair was presented with a thick blue folder, entitled “The Precedent Book”, which set out how previous governments had handled major events, such as the Queen’s Speech and Prime Ministerial statements. Blair pointedly did not open it. The Cabinet was not consulted about Brown’s decision to grant independence to the Bank of England. The Cabinet Secretary was concerned that major decisions were not discussed in Cabinet. “I’m sure they’ll agree,” responded Blair. The Cabinet Secretary persisted: “shouldn’t the Cabinet at least be informed?” “They’ll all agree,” repeated Blair, more emphatically.

 

Cabinet meetings were not held as frequently as under previous prime ministers; they did not last long; there was little substantive discussion. A joke became popular among ministers. “Why does the tea trolley serve only half the Cabinet? Because the meetings are over before it can reach the other side.”

 

Blair was happy for the government to interfere in all the interstices of citizens’ lives. The nation and its administrators became weary with initiative fatigue. According to Andrew Rawnsley: “Units, task forces and review groups, commissars of modernisation on every subject from silicone breast implants to social exclusion, proliferated … councils were instructed on the annual gross weight of dog turds they were expected to collect”.

 

The deficiencies of Blair’s style of governance is shown starkly by his handling of the invasion of Iraq. One of Blair’s reasons for avoiding formal discussions about Iraq was that he wanted to exclude Brown. In the past, a military intervention of this nature would have involved discussion of thick red files in the Cabinet room by ministers and officials and senior military officers covering the background and options.  Blair kept decisions to himself but subsequently did not give them his full attention. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon discovered that conversations with Blair about Iraq were invariably undermined by the prime minister’s attention shifting elsewhere.

 

Conclusion

The number of Whitehall press officers had expanded to 1,100. The tally of special advisers –

spin doctors – had more than doubled since May 1997. Millionaire novelist Ken Follett was once a generous supporter of the Labour Party but became disillusioned. He predicted that Blair would be remembered “as the Prime Minister who made malicious gossip an everyday tool of government”. It was an ironic result of the efforts of New Labour’s propagandists that they undermined the public perception of the character of the Prime Minister and obscured his government’s real successes.

 

Next week – what were the successes?

 

Julie MacLusky

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