Yesterday, I was glued to the TV, watching reactions to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War. The report severely criticises Tony Blair on many counts and raises the question: ‘How can we stop this happening again?’ Perhaps the answer is to consider the amount of power entrusted to one person – the British Prime Minister.
In theory, we already have a system in place to curtail a Prime Minister’s over-mighty tendencies. ‘Collective responsibility’ is the underpinning principle of Cabinet government. The Cabinet is there to provide checks and balances, to prevent a Prime Minister taking significant decisions unchecked. This doctrine alludes to the spirit as well as the machinery of government – it is built on mutual respect.
Tony Blair’s ministerial style was autocratic, often described as ‘sofa government’. He was prone to taking important decisions without proper consultation with his Cabinet ministers. This was evident from the start of his ministry as one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to deregulate the banks… and we all know how well that turned out! Even though this was a monumental decision, there was no Cabinet discussion and Blair relied solely on advice from Gordon Brown, his Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Chilcot inquiry reinforces the view that Blair was over-mighty. It states that prior to the Iraq War:
- Blair wrote to George Bush promising, ‘I’ll be with you, whatever…’
- Blair did not adequately consult with his Cabinet
- Blair misled parliament about the ‘vast stocks’ and ‘urgent threat’ posed by the so called weapons of mass destruction.
- Subsequent military action ‘Undermined the authority of the UN Security Council’
Clement Attlee is considered the most collegiate of all post-war Prime Ministers. He operated like the Chairman of a meeting, encouraging discussion to flow around the table before summing up with a decision. More recently, we have seen this system operating relatively well with Cameron’s coalition government. So a collective approach is possible, even in modern times.
So what gave rise to the ‘Blair Presidency’? Margaret Thatcher was probably the forerunner, who paved the way. She operated in a different world to her predecessors. The media made everything more visible and immediate. ‘Visits abroad and summit meetings have glamour…The world stage offers a different kind of politics where [the Prime Minister] automatically enjoys dignity and prestige’. Television coverage focuses on Prime Ministers, elevating them to Presidential status in the eyes of the public. By her second term, Thatcher courted a formidable public persona as the ‘Iron Lady’. The Iranian Embassy siege in 1980, the Falklands war, hounding the EU over the British rebate, and breaking the miners’ strike in 1985, all reinforced the notion that ‘the Lady’s not for turning’. Thatcher’s Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, took media management to another level, ‘policy-making and political weather-setting’ by feeding stories to the newspapers, particularly The Sun.
Blair took all this to a new level, with the assistance of his spin doctor Alistair Campbell. From the start he was media focused, chasing headlines. In 1997, Blair’s speech on the death of Princess Diana was particularly mesmerising. There was mass hysteria among the public and press as the nation mourned. With the palace was silent, it was left to Blair to comfort the nation. His speech captured the mood perfectly and by the time he had finished the public and press were eating from his hands. It has since emerged that Alistair Campbell wrote the ‘Diana’ speech. But it was a tremendous publicity coup that made Blair appear incredibly charismatic and believable. Everyone seemed to be in awe of him – including his Cabinet – and his ratings as a Prime Minister reached an all time high.
In contrast, Thatcher’s Cabinet did attempt to challenge her. Kenneth Baker describes how Thatcher led from the front, often summing up her views at the start, and defying colleagues to disagree. Howe claims that she often blatantly summed up with her own view, against the mood of a meeting. In November 1985, she was out-voted 6-1 in a debate about European monetary cooperation, but she vetoed the decision. Howe was ‘dumbfounded… Margaret was unwilling to heed our collective judgement’. Heseltine was similarly disgruntled in January 1986 over the Westland Crisis. He resigned and went public, telling the world’s press, ‘this is not a proper way to carry on government’. Thatcher’s premiership nearly ended in its prime because there was a huge backlash against her conduct of Cabinet government. She faced severe criticism in Commons, where she was open to the charge of misleading the House. The Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock, failed to seize the opportunity and the moment passed. Because Thatcher was in a vulnerable position, she reformed her conduct. Kenneth Baker was among those who noticed ‘a definite shift to longer and fuller discussions’ with a more collegiate approach.
This shows how Thatcher was reigned in through powerful dissenting voices in her Cabinet. Eventually, it was Howe who delivered the fatal blow that deposed her. During a televised speech in the House of Commons he resigned from his Cabinet post stating, ‘The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have wrestled for too long’. Heseltine then stepped forward to issue a challenge that Thatcher could not fend off. Cabinet colleagues visited in dribs and drabs to persuade her to resign. In her memoirs, Thatcher acknowledges, ‘support for me in the Cabinet had collapsed…It was the end’. As constitutional expert Peter Hennessy summarises, ‘The price of an over-commanding premiership was an accumulation of resentments and resistances, which caused her to lose it. For it was the Cabinet – that ancient instrument for dispersing power and preventing growth of a single chief executive – which undid her.
It has come to light that Blair consistently avoided Cabinet discussions on matters large and small. Ministers complained that Cabinet meetings were woefully brief, during which time Blair would study his fingernails in a show of disinterest. But what did they do about it?
The Chilcot report categorically states that Blair did not adequately consult with his Cabinet before the Iraq War. Undoubtedly Blair was high-handed. But were the Cabinet also to blame? As George Jones points out, a Prime Minister is ‘only as strong as [his colleagues] let him be’. Cabinet ministers should have intervened, insisting on thorough discussion and full disclosure. Robin Cook was the only minister courageous enough to resign, stating, ‘I can’t accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support.’ If just one more Cabinet minister had the courage to resign the ‘Blair Presidency’ would have been overthrown.
So what lessons can be learned from this? It is important to remember that a Prime Minister really is only as strong as his or her colleagues allow. We have seen how Thatcher’s Cabinet sprang into action to challenge her, and to eventually remove her from office. I hope that Cabinet ministers will continue to have the courage to confront a Prime Minister, to take ‘collective responsibility’ and to provide the essential checks and balances.
In fact, we all have a ‘collective responsibility’ to guard the conduct of our government. The public and the media were vehemently set against the war, and the government was lobbied through the many rallies, marches and petitions.
But regrettably it was to no avail… During the Iraq War, 179 British troops were killed along 4,424 members of the US military. Probably the most damning finding of the Chilcot inquiry was the fact that post-invasion plans were ‘wholly inadequate’. As a result, repercussions in Iraq have been devastating: around 150,000 Iraqis civilians were killed; millions have lost their homes and livelihoods, millions of refugees have been displaced and much of the infrastructure has been destroyed.
With feelings running high in the media, Blair has been labelled a ‘war criminal’, while the sister of a British casualty has called him the ‘world’s worst terrorist’.
I believe that Tony Blair became Prime Minister hoping to leave his mark on the world. He has certainly left a legacy – but not one to be proud of.
I had the great privilege to have studied political history at Queen Mary University of London, where my professor was Peter Hennessy, the renowned constitutional expert. As one of his students I’ve taken a solemn vow to observe the hidden wiring of Government.
 See Foley, M., The Rise of the British Presidency (Manchester: MUP, 1993).
 James, S., British Cabinet Government (London: Routledge, 1992), p.141
 Margaret Thatcher : speech at Tory Party Conference: Brighton, 10/10/1980
 Hennessy, P., The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders since 1945 (London: Penguin, 2001), p.426
 Baker, K., The Turbulent Years (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), p.255-9
 Howe, G., Conflict of Loyalty (London: Macmillan, 1995), p.467
 Ibid., p.450
 Hennessy, P., Cabinet (London: Blackwell, 1986), p.106
 Howe, Conflict, p.468-472
 Baker, Turbulent Years, p.255-9
 Thatcher, M., The Downing Street Years (London: Harper Collins, 1993), p.855
 Hennessy, Prime Ministers, p.433
 Private correspondence 23/3/10
 Edwards, G., The Gresham Reader on Cabinet Government (London: Politico’s, 2004), p142-3