Tony Blair’s cabinet awaydays ‘pretty ghastly’


Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor

Fri, 30 December 2022 at 12:01 am GMT

Annual cabinet “awaydays” became something of a tradition under Tony Blair’s Labour government – and not one their participants necessarily enjoyed, according to newly released official papers.

Senior ministers would gather at the prime minister’s official country residence at Chequers in early September to discuss politics and policy ahead of the party conference season.

However, by 2000 some were questioning their value, with David Miliband, then a No 10 special adviser, complaining that no company would run them in such a haphazard fashion.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
Tensions between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were rarely far from the surface (Michael Stephens/PA)

“The tradition of a TB/GB (Tony Blair/Gordon Brown) introduction and then one disjointed comment from each cabinet member is pretty ghastly – and not very useful,” he said in a memo released to the National Archives in Kew, west London.

Tensions between Mr Blair and his chancellor were never very far from the surface during the New Labour years.

Ahead of the 1998 gathering, Mr Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell wrote to the prime minister suggesting Mr Brown should lead off with a discussion on the economy.

“You said you did not like this, but I don’t see how you can avoid it,” he wrote.

Mr Blair was having none of it. “No,” he replied in a handwritten note. “We should start with a general political discussion which I should lead then in (the) afternoon economy.”

The following year home secretary Jack Straw wrote to the prime minister warning that a combination of spin and sleaze had left Labour looking no better than the previous Tory government in the eyes of voters.

“A combination of over-spinning, and the way we have reacted sometimes to allegations of sleaze now means that the sense that ‘we are like the last lot’ is very strong,” he cautioned.

“The great hope for the Blair administration that we would follow a different sense of values in how we did things is in danger of dissolving.”

Tony Blair and Jack Straw
Jack Straw (right) urged Tony Blair to adopt Tory tactics (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

On the next page, however, he argued that Labour needed to adopt some of the very tactics they had so disparaged the Conservatives for using in order to “tie down” their opponents.

“We need a sophisticated campaign on – this using the Tories’ example from the eighties,” he urged.

“This should not only involve public challenges in the House etc, but more subtle methods including correspondence, trusted party members masquerading as constituents and shadow cabinet members.”

As always with New Labour, there was a strong focus on image.

“TV will film people arriving and going so there can be no woolly jumpers,” Mr Powell warned before one meeting.

– Culture secretary Chris Smith had to be “airbrushed in” to the 2000 annual cabinet photograph after he was unable to attend in person requiring a change in the seating plan, according to files released to the National Archives.

One No 10 official wrote: “It follows the customary order of precedence, except Chris Smith (No 9) is swapped with Clare Short (No 11).

“I have done this because Mr Smith won’t be present and we will need to airbrush in his image from the 1999 photo. He was on the back row last time and so must be again if the airbrushing is going to work.”

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