New Labour with Blair & Brown: What Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were really like to work with

The BBC series New Labour with Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution is taking an in-depth look at New Labour.

A new BBC documentary has looked at the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during the New Labour era.
A new BBC documentary has looked at the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during the New Labour era.

As the BBC chronicles New Labour with Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution, one of the key figures was David Blunkett who held three senior Cabinet posts – including Home Secretary. This is the text of the candid interview that he gave to The Yorkshire Post in May 2007 when Mr Blair announced he was stabnding down as Prime Minister – and Labour leader. Now a peer, you can read Lord Blunkett’s forthright views on the state of politics in The Yorkshire Post on the second Saturday of each month.

David Blunkett makes no apology for his unwavering loyalty to Tony Blair as the Premier confirms his resignation timetable.

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The one-time Cabinet big hitter is proud to call the outgoing Prime Minister a "personal friend". He is prouder still of New Labour's policy achievements during the past 10 years.

But, as a political era draws to a close, this son of Sheffield is in a reflective mood as he rues his inability to halt the feuding between Mr Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown that hastened the Labour leader's retirement.

And Mr Blunkett believes the Prime Minister's biggest regret will be leaving Downing Street without drawing a line under Iraq, a war which has helped to contribute to an alarming evaporation of public trust in the political establishment.

This is reflected by the fact that UK servicemen continue to pay the ultimate price for Mr Blair's close alignment with President George W Bush and their decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein four years ago without a lasting peace plan.

"I am deeply sorry to see Tony Blair go, and under these circumstances, " said the Sheffield Brightside MP.

"In five years' time, people will reflect more accurately on his 10 years as Prime Minister and 13 years as Labour leader, and much more favourably.

"The backwash of Iraq, and the smokescreen around the cash for peerages inquiry, means he is leaving with a much less favourable public impression than he will be credited for when history is written.

"But these 10 years will, I'm certain, come to be regarded as a halcyon era.

"If you look at every major issue since 1997 where people had a concern - the economy, public expenditure cutbacks, teachers on strike in middle-class towns, hospital patients on trolleys, unemployment going through three million - none of these are issues any more.

"We have addressed them and the challenge now is to meet the public's new set of expectations - even better schools, even shorter hospital waiting times - and how these can be best achieved.

"And the fact that the Tories have a leader in David Cameron who also recognises this is testament to Tony's policy success."

Mr Blunkett is sitting behind his desk in his constituency office located in the heart of a vibrant Sheffield city centre that has benefited from massive public and private sector investment.

The walls are lined with symbolic pictures from throughout his career. On the wall behind his desk is a framed photo of the 2001 Cabinet, signed by every politician present.

The tumultuous second half of the Blair premiership means only 11 remain, including the Prime Minister and John Prescott, his deputy, now swiftly heading for the exit door.

Besides the backbencher's desk is a brown rug where his faithful guide dog, Sadie, normally curls up. However, she has left her master's side in the hunt of any titbits that may be on hand from Mr Blunkett's secretary.

It brings to mind the infamous occasion when Mr Blunkett, as Home Secretary, had taken Sadie for a walk in St James's Park, and she started chasing some geese before disappearing over the horizon.

Ten minutes later, as Mr Blunkett and his bodyguards were frantically looking for Sadie, his mobile rang. It was 10 Downing Street to say a golden Labrador had just turned up and parked herself at the Prime Minister's feet.

He then laughs as he remarks how Mr Blair opened the Cabinet the next day by saying: "At least I have had one friend." Evidently this incident occurred at a particularly fractious time in the PM's relationship with his Chancellor.

Mr Blunkett first met the future Prime Minister on a train as they travelled from London to Brighton for a party conference around 1990.

They had dinner that evening - the Sheffield MP recalls enjoying "half a bottle of wine" while Mr Blair supped two pints.

Their rapport grew following Labour leader John Smith's death in 1994, when it fell to Mr Blunkett, as party chairman, to preside over the leadership contest that was to herald a new dawn for British politics.

Mr Blunkett's early impression of Mr Blair was the ability of the Sedgefield MP to articulate complicated issues in Commons committees that guaranteed media coverage.

On becoming party leader, Mr Blair asked Mr Blunkett which portfolio he wanted.

"Bearing in mind that he had a Chancellor in mind, and a Foreign Secretary, I volunteered for Education and Employment, " he said.

The decision placed Mr Blunkett at the forefront of New Labour policy, after education was famously made the new leader's top priority.

He points to the early policy changes, such as a reduction in class sizes and the need to invest in new school buildings, which are now paying dividends. "Change cannot happen overnight."

But Mr Blunkett admits mistakes were made - especially the government's failure to dampen down the electorate's expectations.

"If we were able, with hindsight, to start again, and I have discussed this with Tony, we would have placed much more emphasis in the first year on how you better deliver the modernising agenda through the public services, " he said.

"We did have rather a lot on our hands in the first year, but we didn't dampen down expectations. It was just like a cork coming out of a champagne bottle.

"Just afterwards, we had the chairmanship of the EU, and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, that hindered us."

There were two other tactical errors, says Mr Blunkett.

He says the House of Lords should have been reformed in year one, when New Labour had a mandate for change, instead of now. This, he argues, would have been a far better use of Parliamentary time, and also delivered a tangible reform, rather than the prolonged debate about the hunting ban.

Second, Mr Blunkett said the National Health Service should have been made "to balance its books".

"We are doing it now, but people have quite erroneously got the view that their health services are being cut, " he said.

"What NHS Trusts are being made to do is spend within their annual budgets. We never managed to square the terrible circle that you want less policy direction coming from the centre, but real accountability at a local level.

"Now there are four people on reception desks when two will do. And there are people faffing about on computers and patients don't know what they are doing."

One reform option, says Mr Blunkett, is for individuals to stand for election to Primary Care Trusts who would then work alongside hospital managers and a number of non-executive directors who would be appointed because of their expertise.

He believes such an approach, coinciding with the May local elections, would enhance the accountability of the NHS - a vital element of any future reforms.

However, Mr Blunkett says the next Premier will find it very difficult to follow Mr Blair's down-to-earth style when he meets real people.

Take Sheffield. No previous Prime Minister had ventured north of the city centre. Tony Blair has done so four times.

On the last occasion, he visited a youth centre to discuss anti-social behaviour and was greeted by a shaven- headed lady recovering from chemotherapy.

"I'll never forget it, " said Mr Blunkett. "She said: 'We're glad you're here lad, we're sorry you're going, but while you're here, there are one or two things we want you to listen to'.

"I know for a fact that a letter has been sent to that lady answering her concerns. These visits are not photo opportunities, they do make a difference.

"When I was Home Secretary, Tony was always telling me to make sure that Anti-Social Behaviour Orders worked properly. He was always reminding me of this. That's how much it mattered to him."

Some might argue that Mr Blair should have spent more time writing letters to the bereaved families of UK servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Blunkett readily concedes that the Government would have "baulked" at the invasion of Iraq if the information known now had been available in 2003.

He says he voted for war because Iraq was in breach of United Nations resolutions, not whether Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction.

"If the UN resolutions are not enforced, they are not worth a bean, " said Mr Blunkett. "In Kosovo, we didn't have a UN resolution for military action, but we still succeeded.

"In Iraq, we allowed the Americans to preside over the dismantling of the Iraqi state apparatus that led to so many soldiers and such losing their jobs. That was a critical mistake and has contributed towards the insurgency.

"Yes, there are times when I have thought: 'Is it worth it?' But I still think that we will see stability over the next 10 years and the creation of an independent Palestine state."

On whether Mr Blair has been President Bush's poodle, Mr Blunkett is defiant. "There is only one superpower. You can work with it or you can waffle like France or Germany? What did they achieve? Nothing."

The former Cabinet heavyweight revealed how Mr Blair tried to temper the unhealthy influence in the Bush administration of neo-cons like Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr Blair successfully persuaded President Bush not to authorise the bombing of civilian targets in Afghanistan, against the advice of Rumsfeld and Cheney. "That's influence, " said Mr Blunkett.

The former Sheffield City Council leader believes Gordon Brown will also work closely with the US if he is elected Prime Minister.

He says the Prime Minister and Chancellor were "unbelievable" when they worked in harmony. But their disagreements could be very "destabilising". "My regret is that I did not do more to try and stop this, " he said.

It is unlikely Mr Blunkett will make another Cabinet comeback. He says he is enjoying life on the backbenches. He has been able to attend his beloved Sheffield Wednesday at least 12 times this season.

And, following his two resignations in 2004 and 2006, he has, thus far, secured 35 retractions from the media following libellous and defamatory reports. "It must be a record, " he chortles. "But I couldn't do this if I was still in government."

Mr Blunkett readily concedes he should not have returned to the Cabinet in May 2005 as Work and Pensions Secretary after resigning as Home Secretary just six months earlier, following a visa row involving his former partner's nanny.

"I don't blame the media, we are human and we are frail. We are now more exposed than any other political generation in history. People I respect from the past could not survive in today's climate, " he said.

"But the steps we have taken to clean up politics have shone lights in corners that were never expected. I believe politics is cleaner, more transparent and more honest, but it has come at a price. Are very talented people going to be put off from entering politics?"

Mr Blunkett believes the creation of an independent panel to investigate allegations of impropriety would be a step forward.

He still maintains that his two faux pas were not resignation issues. He says the same was also applicable to Peter Mandelson's two Cabinet exits.

He believes there needs to be a more pragmatic way to investigate allegations of impropriety, to avoid media witch-hunts.

But Mr Blunkett is adamant that the twin issues of sleaze and Iraq should not detract from Tony Blair's legacy.

"You are never respected until years later, " he added. "No one ever put Clement Attlee down as one of the greatest Prime Ministers when he left office in 1951. That only happened 20 years later.

"I have studied the 1964-70 Labour government which contained many of the party's great figures. But can you tell me one thing that they achieved? But, in contrast, Tony Blair has won us three General Elections and we have it in our own hands to win a fourth.

"That is how remarkable his government has been. I, for one, will miss him."