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Kinship to Daggers Drawn: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown

Kinship to Daggers Drawn: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
 Colm Murphy
Past & Present Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research

From inspired collaboration in a windowless Whitehall office to bitter spats in the corridors of Downing Street, the complex relationship of prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has left a powerful impression on British political history. In the first installment of our series on political duos and power-sharing, Colm Murphy, historian of politics, explores the extraordinary creativity and eventual toxicity of the Blair-Brown nexus. He takes this opportunity to draw lessons for other political leaders, even those who would rather walk alone.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are one of the most famous double-acts in contemporary British politics. Forging their close partnership during the 1980s inside the unsettled ranks of the disempowered Labour Party, they spearheaded a daring party reformation - which they dubbed "New Labour" - and led Labour back into office with a landslide victory in 1997. They proceeded to dominate the peak of British politics for the next thirteen years. 

As a model of dual governance, Blair and Brown provide an instructive case study - and cautionary tale. While their political relationship was extraordinarily successful at first, it became increasingly corrosive and unstable, which had deleterious consequences for their effectiveness as governors and political leaders. It also distorted the distribution of power within the British executive. Aspirant political duos should, as much as possible, avoid their mistakes.

Origins and strengths

Sheer chance played a role in the emergence of the Blair-Brown duopoly. On becoming a member of parliament (MP) in 1983 - a disastrous election for the Labour Party overall - Tony Blair initially found himself sharing an office with Dave Nellist, a Trotskyist. They did not get on. Looking for a new office buddy, Blair was assigned another new MP, Gordon Brown. From these cramped quarters, Blair and Brown developed one of the "closest male partnerships that I’d ever seen", in the words of Blair's future secretary Anji Hunter.

Alongside its unusually strong personal chemistry, their relationship was also highly effective politically. 

Alongside its unusually strong personal chemistry, their relationship was also highly effective politically. Both shared key instincts about the future direction of the Labour Party. Over the 1980s, Blair and Brown rose together through the ranks of the party, as Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and John Smith tried to reform its policies, organisation, and image. By the early 1990s, they were well known enthusiasts for faster and more radical change, calling themselves 'modernisers'.

The array of political actors who set about to 'modernise' the Labour Party, locked out of power by Margaret Thatcher and John Major's Conservative party, was broad and diverse. But together, Blair and Brown (and the MP and former spin doctor Peter Mandelson) became the foremost spokespeople for an increasingly influential interpretation, which combined an unswervingly disciplined and centrist approach to taxation and crime, and an unprecedented warmth to the market economy, with renewed investment in education, health, and infrastructure, strengthened regulation of labour markets, targeted help for the long-term unemployed, and constitutional reforms.

Alongside a shared political outlook, Blair and Brown possessed different - and complementary - skills and backgrounds. Brown was rooted in the once powerful bastion of Scottish Labour (later humbled by the Scottish National Party) and possessed a decent grasp of economics. Blair had shallower but much wider interests, experience as a lawyer, and excellent communication skills, which allowed him to reach different audiences, like "swing voters" in the South and Midlands of England. These different political personas could synergize to brilliant effect. In 1993, Blair gained weeks of admiring press coverage after a speech in which he called for governments to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The slogan was Brown’s idea, as both men have acknowledged, but he gave it to Blair. Coming after a prominent and particularly horrific murder case involving children, the speech drew attention to spiralling crime rates under the Conservative government, partly a legacy of the social and economic division of the 1980s. It also neutralised a longstanding, electorally damaging impression of Labour: that it was ‘soft’ on crime. This undoubtedly helped Labour in the UK general election four years later.

This potential for synergy existed in the government too. In foreign policy, Blair and Brown were completely in step on the need to increase the aid budget and write off the crippling debt burdens of developing countries. They could also harmonize on domestic policy. The 1998 Budget, for example, was well received due to its ingenious combination of Brown’s stealth tax increases, which allowed him to redistribute cash to the poor, with Blair’s conscious retaining of middle-class tax breaks. Looking back in 2001, the journalist Andrew Rawnsley directly attributed the Budget’s political success to the "marriage of Brown and Blair": "when functioning creatively, [it] could be one of the most productive partnerships British politics is ever likely to see".

The watershed

Rawnsley was, however, wise to add "when functioning creatively". Because by 2001, it was clear that the Blair-Brown relationship was barely functioning at all.

A watershed in their relationship was the period between a crushing 1992 election loss for Labour and a leadership contest in 1994. After Kinnock resigned in 1992, Blair wanted Brown to run for leader. Brown had, however, made a deal with the veteran Labourite John Smith, in which Brown would be appointed Shadow Chancellor in return for giving the older man a clear run. With this deal in hand, Brown thought that running would be foolish; Blair, however, disagreed and thought that Brown had missed his chance.

A watershed in their relationship was the period between a crushing 1992 election loss for Labour and a leadership contest in 1994. 

Once Shadow Chancellor, Brown had to do much of the dirty work of Smith’s leadership. Tasked with presenting Labour as economically "prudent", he kept tight control of spending pledges, and thus clashed with colleagues who wanted to announce expensive policies. He was also the chief salesman of Labour’s official support of membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, an EU proposal, mainly to shore up Labour’s anti-inflationary and pro-European credentials, which backfired on him after the ‘Black Wednesday’ currency crisis in September 1992. Meanwhile, Blair was building his reputation as Shadow Home Secretary. Increasingly, powerful people in Labour began to whisper that it should be Blair, not Brown, who should run next time.

The crunch came after Smith’s sudden, untimely death in 1994. Blair moved quickly to shore up key support bases for his leadership bid. Reeling from Smith’s death, Brown was caught off guard, and although initially furious, he quickly realized that his support had melted away. Blair then made a devastatingly plausible argument: only he or Brown should run, not both. Coming from the same faction, they did not want to split the vote. Brown reluctantly agreed, but on a few conditions, hammered out over several meetings. Infamously, memories differ here. Brown was convinced that Blair had agreed to stand down as prime minister after two terms, and that he would give Brown free rein over economic policy at the Treasury. Blair has claimed that neither were firm promises. But importantly, Brown thought they were and acted accordingly.

These different interpretations of "Granita Agreement" (named after a restaurant in north London where the details were supposedly confirmed), proved to be fatal. It became a running sore during their government. An early casualty was Peter Mandelson, who became the scapegoat for embittered Brown supporters. As it became clear that Blair had no intention of stepping aside after a second term, Brown became every more resentful. It didn’t help that a mythologised version of the deal became public knowledge and was endlessly discussed; it was even the crux of a television drama The Deal (Channel 4, 2003), in which Michael Sheen portrayed Blair for the first time. The deputy prime minister John Prescott managed to broker a peace deal in 2003, in which Blair committed to stand down in 2004 and Brown promised he would cooperate with Blair’s premiership. But neither side kept their bargain: Blair most egregiously, by leading the Labour Party into their third election victory in 2005. Blair only finally stepped down in 2007 after relentless public criticism from Brown’s supporters, including several coordinated ministerial resignations in 2006.

Policy spats

This personal history was deeply corrosive to their relationship. But it was exacerbated by other divisions. Despite their close alignment in the 1990s, Blair and Brown also harboured policy disagreements, and even subtle ideological differences, which were exacerbated under the pressures of government, particularly after their second election victory in 2001.

As the New Labour era progressed, it became clear that Blair and Brown had different understandings of what they thought "modernization" should mean.

As the New Labour era progressed, it became clear that Blair and Brown had different understandings of what they thought "modernization" should mean. Blair latched onto controversial public service reforms that, he believed, would 'break up the monoliths' and empower the individual. He attempted to introduce market mechanisms, internal competition, and autonomy from Westminster into public services, exemplified in the creation of 'foundation hospitals' and the introduction of university tuition fees. Brown, meanwhile, was warier of marketizing reforms and less likely than Blair to assume that private was better than public. 

He was also (in a limited way) more willing to raise taxes than Blair to fund public services and redistribute incomes. 

The final policy difference was over whether the UK should join the eurozone. In the 1990s, Blair and Brown were both interested in the Economic and Monetary Union, then in motion after the Delors Report, but were wary about both the potential economic impact and the political challenge of convincing a sceptical British public. By the early 2000s, however, Blair had become increasingly attracted to the potential merits of joining and wanted to keep the possibility open (if not necessarily join). Brown, however, had become much warier on the economics of eurozone membership. His "five tests", developed with his advisor Ed Balls at the Treasury, actively blocked Blair’s agenda.

Government by rivalry

These emerging policy differences, combined with the intense and neurotic baggage of their complex personal relationship, had material effects on the operation of the New Labour governments. In short, Labour’s time in office was profoundly marked by an intensely rivalrous duopoly. While Blair was installed as prime minister in Number Ten, Brown took control of No.11, the institutionally powerful Treasury, which could dictate the character, pace, and direction of the whole government by controlling the budgets of the other departments, a power that Brown actively strengthened through mechanisms like spending and efficiency reviews. This gave both men semi-autonomous institutional power bases that loomed over the rest of the government, which they guarded jealously.

This was, predictably, a recipe for constant warring over control of the government's agenda and policy program. While Blair and Brown only rarely confronted each other directly, their teams frequently sparred through the media, especially their pugnacious spokesmen Alastair Campbell (Blair) and Charlie Whelan (Brown), inspirations for the caustic BBC sit-com The Thick of It (2005-2012). The pair’s battles also shaped the Labour Party more broadly.

Ministers and MPs aligned themselves to the "Blairite" or "Brownite" camps, and aspirant MPs directly competed for selections in constituencies as "Blairite" or "Brownite" candidates. This conflict escalated to the extent that Brown’s team even ran rival whipping operations to Blair’s during parliamentary votes. It also explains the occurrence of several attempted coups by ministerial resignation, such as the Tom Watson plot against Blair in 2006 or Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke’s strikes against Brown in 2009.

While Blair and Brown only rarely confronted each other directly, their teams frequently sparred through the media.

The authors Jon Davis and John Rentoul have even compared the Blair-Brown relationship in government to a formal "coalition", like that between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties from 2010 and 2015. That is probably going too far: Blair and Brown, after all, came not just from the same party but from the same factional wing. But it is indicative of the extent to which the division between the pair shaped and distorted the New Labour government.


All this had unsurprisingly deleterious consequences for the effectiveness of both Blair and Brown's governments. Former special adviser at the heart of New Labour's governments, Patrick Diamond, suggested as much in 2011: "The search for coherence in domestic policy", he argued, "was also hindered by the reality of a dual premiership … [s]enior officials had to steer a careful course in order to keep both power centres on side, but it was a recipe for vacillation and confusion". This paralysation of civil servants had portentous implications for centrepiece agendas, be they reforming public services or redistributing resources from rich to poor. The constant warring also squandered the energies of leading government talents. Not everyone agrees with this analysis. Geoff Mulgan, a former head of the policy unit in Downing Street, has suggested that the competition between Blair and Brown facilitated greater rigour in policymaking, which in turn led to better decisions; he gives the example of the UK not joining the eurozone. Yet, even if this was true on occasion, it is hard to disagree with the more widespread opinion that the Blair-Brown relationship degenerated from productive and competitive collaboration into mutually destructive rivalry. Looking back on Blair's decade as prime minister in 2007, the political scientist Dennis Kavanagh condemned the Blair-Brown conflict as 'inherently destabilising'.

Not only did Brown and Blair's increasingly bitter rivalry arrest the development of an effective governing agenda. It also distorted the functioning of the executive.

Not only did Brown and Blair's increasingly bitter rivalry arrest the development of an effective governing agenda. It also distorted the functioning of the executive. In classic constitutional theory, the British government is ruled by a Cabinet of ministers, who abide by collective responsibility, and among which the prime minister is "first among equals". By the 1990s, this was already a fiction, truth be told. But the Cabinet's increasing impotence was cruelly exposed during most of the New Labour years. 

At the time, many blamed Blair's "presidentialism" and an informal "sofa government" approach where Blair would take advice from a small unofficial group of advisers rather than from his Cabinet, and the rising power of "spin doctors" - that is, spokespeople who give favourable interpretations of events to the media.

But arguably the most damaging force to the Cabinet government was the Blair-Brown competitive duopoly. When two powerful figures in the British government effectively ran the government in competition with each other, power crystallised around them, bypassing the rest of the Cabinet. It is revealing that, when Blair stepped down and only Brown remained, Cabinet regained some degree of importance.

This might not matter as much if, through rigorous debate and power distribution between their camps, the Blair-Brown competition led to better policy making, as Mulgan claims. But it is far from clear that this was true. Indeed, it sometimes led to the scenario where each man accumulated too much power in their different power bases. Brown was probably one of the most powerful Chancellors in modern British history. Blair, meanwhile, famously devoted the latter years of his prime ministership to a hugely contentious foreign policy agenda, especially the Iraq War. The catastrophe of the Iraq War can be traced to many myriad failings, and there were other "big beasts" directly involved in decision-making like British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. But it is suggestive that Blair turned so completely to foreign policy at the same time as he was hitting a Brownite wall on his domestic agenda.

Indeed, in his memoirs Brown blames his failure to raise too many questions about the Iraq invasion on his toxic relationship with Blair:

"In 2002 and 2003 I was on the road to a head-on collision with Tony over three matters: the euro, the NHS and tuition fees. All coincided with our decision to go into Iraq. Embroiled in these battles, I was, rightly or wrongly, anxious to avoid a fourth area of dispute".

There is some suspiciously convenient hindsight here, and other ministers like Robin Cook and Clare Short did resign over Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, the process by which the Iraq War became Blair's personal mission, unhindered by truly effective checks elsewhere in the executive, is another example of the ways in which the Blair-Brown duopoly could facilitate the unhealthy concentration of power in different parts of government, as each jealously guarded their areas of control.

An instructive model?

The dysfunctionality of the Blair-Brown relationship was, to some extent, specific to their personality mix: Blair's slipperiness and tendency to a messianic complex, Brown's famously short temper and domineering, sometimes bullying demeanour. The toxicity of their relationship was only compounded by their past friendship. As Blair recalled in his memoir: 

"Gordon and I had been well-nigh inseparable for over ten years. We were as close as two people ever are in politics. It was not simply a professional relationship, it was a friendship. Later, when things became difficult, then fraught, and finally dangerous, the wrench was all the harder because the intimacy had been so real".

There are, nevertheless, some wider lessons that we can draw from the Blair-Brown case study for any duo at the apex of politics. Firstly, partnerships can, in theory, constrain the dangerous concentration of power in one person, but this is not an inevitable benefit. If not properly integrated into existing systems of governance, an overpowered political duo, each with their own fiefdoms, can undermine pre-existing checks and balances and, thus, facilitate abuses of power. The disempowerment of Cabinet, Treasury power grabs, and the Iraq War all provide ample evidence of this danger.

Secondly, partnerships can be collaborative, or even creatively destructive. Their competitive edge can also force rigour. But, if not carefully cultivated and managed with sensitivity, they can also be simply destructive. Constant clashing between two powerful leaders will monopolise attention, drain energies, and wreck agendas in any government. That was, undoubtedly, the fate of the Blair-Brown governments, and they should serve as a cautionary tale for any future political pair.

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