20 years after Tony Blair become Labour party leader we look back at his legacy

How Tony Blair went from political saint to sinner during his time at the helm of his party

It's a bitter sweet experience for many reliving the moment Tony Blair and his wife Cherie walked towards No 10 Downing Street to take up his role as Prime Minister.

Crowds cheered and although a fair few of them were ‘New’ Labour loyalists there to swell the numbers, many were indeed there of their own volition to enjoy the moment.

It’s hard to convey now the extraordinary wave of optimism his victory in May 1997 unleashed.

The public, heartily sick of loadsamoney, ‘there is no such thing as society’ selfishness of the Margaret Thatcher era, and still mindful of the Black Wednesday crash which tarnished her successor John Major and Chancellor Norman Lamont, were more than ready for a change.

And Blair seemed to represent not just a change in Government but a change in politics after he was elected Labour leader in July 1994.

In 1995, he accused Mr Major of bowing to the “squalid monetary interests of the Conservative Party” and insisted that once in office Labour would be “purer than pure”. And, such was his charisma, people believed him.

While Mrs Thatcher’s words on the steps of Number 10, in which she quoted from St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony..” quickly rang hollow, the fresh faced, photogenic Sedgefield MP seemed the real deal.

As politics expert Dr Martin Farr of Newcastle University said: “The level of expectation of him was high, too high. Like with Barack Obama in the US.

“People invested a lot of hope in both and they could never fulfil those hopes.”

In short, it was bound to end in tears. Tears and jeers as it turned out, accusations of cronyism, kickbacks and warmongering, claims that he sold the Labour party’s fundamental principles down the river to curry favour with its ideological enemies, the City and right wing media moguls, most notably Rupert Murdoch.

From the bright future of the party he became the symbol all that is wrong, not just about New Labour, but politics itself. In it for himself and personal glory.

He’s almost become a political pantomime villain, his forays into public generally met with a fusillade of opprobrium, a wince-inducing distraction for the current Labour leadership.

But is this fair on him?

To begin at the beginning, Prof Farr commented: “The first thing people should remember is he became leader by accident because of the tragic death of John Smith.”

Smith had taken over as Labour leader from Neil Kinnock after Labour, to the surprise of some, lost the 1992 General Election to Major’s Tory Government.

Kinnock had spent years dealing with the internecine battles of left v right in his party in a bid to make it electable.

Smith carried on his work, abolishing the trade union block vote at Labour party conferences and replaced it with ‘One member, one vote’ at the 1993 party conference.

He frequently savaged Major and his Lamont in Parliament for their ineptitude, securing a 23% lead for Labour in the opinion polls by early May 1994.

On the evening of May 11, Smith made a speech at a fundraising dinner at Park Lane Hotel, London, saying “The opportunity to serve our country—that is all we ask”.

The following morning Smith suffered a massive heart attack and he died just over an hour later in hospital.

Between Smith’s death and the Labour leadership contest, Blair is said to have forged a pact with Gordon Brown for the Scot to step aside and give him a free run at the top job.

The deal, allegedly struck at the Islington restaurant Granita, and what it entailed, has gone down in political legend, amid claims Brown only agreed to step aside if Blair agreed to resign after two terms as Prime Minister. Blair has always denied this.

Whatever the truth, it drove a wedge between the formerly close political allies which erupted into open political warfare during the years they worked together.

From 1979 to 1997 the Tories were in power and it had a marked effect on both Blair and Brown.

“Both had a desire to win,” said Dr Farr. “They had endured a generation of Labour without any hint of power.

“It instilled in them great discipline. The New Labour media strategy was of great control.”

As well as an unsightly fawning to the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail, New Labour’s appeal rested on Blair’s shoulders as someone to be trusted. It didn’t take long for his moral crown to slip. To be precise, it took six months into his Prime Ministership with the Bernie Ecclestone affair.

The Formula One boss had secured an exemption for his sport from the banning of tobacco advertising after personally lobbying Blair in October 1997. In January 1998 Ecclestone donated £1m to the Labour party. Some people thought the two events were somehow linked.

Blair eventually apologised and, in a phrase that was to later haunt him, insisted he was a “pretty straight sort of guy”. In July 1998 there were stories of lobbyists with Labour connections promising companies access for cash.

Other political scandals followed, most notably in 1998 when Blair’s closest political ally, Peter Mandelson, then Trade and Industry Secretary and MP for Hartlepool, resigned after failing to disclose a £373,000 loan from Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson.

Then after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, in a move which captured the public’s growing contempt for what it saw as New Labour cynicism, spin doctor Jo Moore wrote an email to a press officer suggesting it was a good day to bury bad news.

By 2005 Blair was reportedly told by pollsters that the public literally hated him or loved him and there was no middle ground. While Mrs Thatcher generated equally passionate feelings, that was all about her policies. For Blair, it was personal.

So perhaps it is best left to Blair himself to outline what his Government did for the country.

In a speech after standing down, he said: “I led a Labour Government pursuing progressive policies. A minimum wage; the largest ever investment in schools and hospitals; Sure Start; childcare; a new Department for International Development with a tripled aid budget that leads the world today in development policies; millions of pensioners saved from poverty; a million children lifted from poverty; and in everything from devolution to a Mayor for London, the winning of the Olympic bid, to civil partnerships and the country’s first Muslim Ministers, a new way of doing, thinking and acting. I’m proud of it. We should be proud of it.”

But then there was Iraq. In his first six years in office Blair ordered British troops into battle five times, more than any other Prime Minister in British history. This included Iraq in both 1998 and 2003, Kosovo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2000 and Afghanistan in 2001.

It was Iraq 2003 which hit his reputation hardest with the allegedly ‘sexed up’ - or ‘dodgy’ - dossier which led to military intervention, the weapons of mass destruction claims which turned out to be without foundation, all adding up to the warmongering tag he will never shake loose.

When he talked recently of further military intervention in Iraq he was roundly shouted down by all sides. He is still, occasionally, the subject of ‘citizens arrest’ for war crimes.

His supporters say he should be remembered much more than for Iraq. But the Iraq war casts a long shadow, as does Blair over the present Labour leader Ed Miliband.

For despite Iraq 2003 Blair still went on to win the 2005 General Election.

Dr Farr added: “He led his party to three consecutive general election victories for the first time ever. It was a remarkable achievement which should not be underestimated.”

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