It is easy to tell when David Cameron is wading into trouble during interviews. He becomes defensive, audibly irritated and — as an emergency self-calming measure — tries to force a little laugh. He performed this telltale routine on the radio on Monday, when challenged over his NHS reforms. He had promised the country no more upheavals to the NHS — and had clearly reneged. How to get out of this tight spot? Cite Tony Blair. In a speech later that day Cameron invoked the former PM’s name to justify himself. Bringing in these health reforms was just what Blair would have done. How could any sensible person disagree with that?
It might sound like an odd line of argument to the many people who regard Blair as a charlatan. When word came that he would give evidence (again) to the Iraq inquiry on Friday, there was much excitement in the Cameron circle, where he remains something of a political hero. Lansley’s NHS plan had been waved through Cameron’s team by the simple explanation that they were doing ‘Blair, better’. What more need one say?
Blair worship has long been a hallmark of the Cameron project. It is a rather odd cult, but it explains many of their strengths and vulnerabilities.
When Blair was asked to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, his fans in the government regarded it as something akin to a papal visit. His last outing in front of the inquiry prompted several ministers to arrange their day around his testimony — not in the hope of seeing him exposed, but in the expectation of a bravura performance. ‘There are two things I’ll always try and clear my diary for,’ one minister told me, ‘watching Brian Lara bat and Tony Blair talk.’
The Blairite agenda — market-based reform in public services — directly inspired the coalition’s education and health policies. The academies programme, granting independent status to state schools, was Blair’s pet project and has been sent into fifth gear by Michael Gove. The Education Secretary, for his part, devoured the Blair memoirs and during the Tory conference slept with them by his bed. Often, if someone challenges Gove on an aspect of his policy of school reform, he will refer to his copy of the Blair bible.
There are other areas where the coalition seeks to continue what Blair started. The Blair pledge vastly to increase the international aid budget has been honoured by the coalition despite cuts almost everywhere else. Lord Freud, a former welfare adviser to Blair, was poached by Cameron and asked to keep the Blair project going in the Department for Work and Pensions. Gove once told this magazine that he’d hire Lord Adonis, who advised Blair on schools, ‘like a shot’ — an offer that was not taken up. But Adonis has offered Gove his public backing.
But the most sincere compliment to Blair is the way the Cameroons have sought to replicate his style of government. From the outset, the Cameroons wanted to create their own version of the Blair machine, the Bootleg Blairites.
This explains many odd decisions. Why did Cameron and George Osborne take the risk of hiring Andy Coulson as communications chief, despite him having had to resign as editor of the News of the World over a voicemail hacking scandal? Was it not obvious that his past would come back to haunt all of them?
Rather like England cricket selectors in the 1990s, who were determined to find someone to fill the ‘Botham slot’, Cameron and Osborne went out looking for their Alastair Campbell. And in Coulson they saw someone who provided two of the things that they believed to have been crucial to New Labour’s grip on the media: proximity to News International and an instinctive understanding of the tabloid press. But what they didn’t grasp was how much of the Blair project’s success had come out of its study of the psychology of swing voters, rather than day-to-day news management. If Cameron does end up being harmed by the decision to hire Coulson, it will be a posthumous triumph for Campbell’s spin machine.
There was a time when Blair worship was semi-open. When Cameron was gathering support from newspapers for his leadership campaign in 2005, he did so by declaring himself the ‘heir to Blair’. When Gordon Brown took over, George Osborne positioned the Tories as the party of continuity Blairism. ‘There is an agreement between him and ourselves about the way forward,’ declared the future chancellor. ‘We both agree the country needs public services that are free at the point of access and exposed to consumer choice.’
The message was clear: to finish Blair’s unfinished business, vote Tory. What one was meant to do if one loathed Blair and all he stood for was never articulated. It was as if the Blair agenda was the apogee of common sense.
When Blair left parliament for the last time, Cameron was sincere in asking his MPs to join him in a standing ovation. Mike Penning, who had been a Tory communications chief before the 2005 election, remained defiantly seated with crossed arms. It was clear that there were still Tory MPs who regarded the Blair agenda as poisonous and wanted no part of it. But they were in a minority.
One might argue that Cameron’s fond farewell for Blair was inspired by relief that he would not have to face the three-times election winner at the ballot box. The Tory leader was also getting ready to welcome the New Labour voters who were likely to defect when Blair was replaced by Brown. But Cameron was saluting more than this. The Tories looked at the reform agenda that Brown would shortly be abandoning and decided to restore it once they were in power. One reforming civil servant who left No. 10 at the same time as Blair but who has recently returned says, ‘I missed the Brown period, so it seems like I’m picking up where we left off.’
And the Cameroons may well regard Blair as a sinner who has repented: a conservative who became a little confused at college and ended up in the Labour party by mistake. His memoirs are those of a man being pulled ever rightwards by the facts of life. The postscript to his book is a defence of what he calls his credo: ‘liberal economic policies, market reforms in welfare and public services, and engagement and intervention abroad’. It is hard to think what the Cameroons would add to, or take away, from that list.
Indeed, Blair appears to have more intellectual confidence in this essentially centre-right doctrine than many Tories do. His book offers an interpretation of the economic crisis which starkly contrasts with that of Gordon Brown. He dismisses the idea that the market failed — pointing out that government, politicians and regulation failed just as much, if not more. He even ascribes Labour’s defeat at the last election to his successor buying into the idea that ‘the state is back’.
But the most important reason for Blair’s hold on the coalition is that he has never been defeated at the ballot box or, they believe, discredited intellectually. Blair’s greatest failure as Prime Minister was to let Brown exert a stranglehold over the government’s economic policy. But this failure means that Blair has largely escaped his share of the blame for having left this country so exposed to the financial crisis.
Intriguingly, the one political leader who wants to break with the Blair era is Ed Miliband. On Saturday, he told the Labour party that it must change the ‘common sense of the age’ in the way that the Tories had in the 1970s. His argument was that Labour needed to move on from the political economy of the Blair years. And here is a fundamental difference between the two parties. Cameron believes the Blair model was fundamentally correct, and will keep using it, while Miliband believes it is past its sell-by date.
Iraq might have destroyed Blair’s reputation, but it did not destroyed his hold on British politics. His academies programme is rolling on, with many of his advisers now working for the Cameron reforms. Andrew Lansley, who affected to despise NHS reform in opposition, is now embracing it.
The Blairites may have lost the Labour party — but they have gained a government. As Blair jets away from the jeers of the protestors, he may well conclude that his fourth term in power is going rather well.