The Independent

Balls on the ‘shocking truth’ about Blair and Brown


Ed Balls came to King’s College London on Monday to talk to students on the “Blair Years” class that I teach with Dr Michelle Clement and Professor Jon Davis. His main argument was that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown basically agreed on everything, despite attempts by Brown’s rivals to divide them.

He said that the Blair-Brown partnershi­p was a model for subsequent government­s. He disagreed with Rachel Reeves – his successor as shadow chancellor – who this month said that she wanted to copy the relationsh­ip between David Cameron and George Osborne. “They worked very well together as a team,” she said. “You couldn’t play them off against each other.”

Balls said this was the wrong example to follow. “The times when Labour got into trouble, in retrospect, were the times when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agreed too easily,” he said. “They were more effective when they were challengin­g each other, and therefore the outcome was the result of that creative tension between the two of them.”

Balls said that the idea that the Blair-Brown tensions were mostly destructiv­e was put about by rivals who wanted to undermine Brown to secure the leadership in succession to Blair for themselves.

He disagreed with me when I said it would have been better if Brown had run against Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994 and been beaten. “The idea that it would have been better for Labour if Gordon had run against Tony – well, Gordon was never going to do that. And it was absolutely not what Tony Blair wanted at all. He worked incredibly hard to make sure it was all held together, and the idea that Tony Blair should have made Gordon Brown shadow home secretary – it’s ridiculous. This was the modernisin­g partnershi­p. They basically didn’t trust anybody else other than each other. They’d seen Labour lose on the economy time and time again. They were absolutely not going to do that.

“The reality of the personal and political partnershi­p between them is that, for all of the guff and chat and insider machinatio­n which occurs between 1994 and 2007, in fact, Tony Blair never ever does anything other than have Gordon Brown as his shadow chancellor and his chancellor, because in the end, however much it may have been in the interest of others for that not to be the case and however much people tried to persuade Tony Blair that it wasn’t in his interests to have Gordon Brown as shadow chancellor and chancellor, Tony Blair never believed that.”

He argued that, when it came to a point of decision, Blair tended to agree with Brown. “I don’t think in that period up to 1997 you really see any marked ideologica­l difference between them at all on any aspect of policy,” he said.

Labour got into trouble when they agreed too easily. They were more effective when they were challengin­g each other, and therefore the outcome was the result of that creative tension between the two of them

I reminded him that he and Brown argued against the 1997 election pledge not to change any income tax rates because they wanted to keep the option open of putting up tax on higher incomes. “I’ll tell you the shocking story of this period,” said Balls. “The question you have to ask is whether there were difference­s of ideology and philosophy, or were there difference­s of tactics.

“The Third Way revisionis­m of New Labour in 1997 is BlairBrown. On the tax side,” Balls said, “Gordon thought that what we ought to do is go for over £100,000 a year.” That would be about £180,000 now, whereas Jeremy Hunt has lowered the threshold for the top rate of 45 per cent to £125,000 a year. “On very high incomes,” said Balls, Brown’s plan was “to have a 50 per cent top rate, to close off this issue, to make it clear that we were keeping taxes down for everybody, other than the very rich, and Tony didn’t like that signal. In the end, Gordon said fine, but I would see a bit more of a tactical issue rather than a fundamenta­l philosophi­cal issue.”

Brown then delivered a speech saying a Labour government would not raise the basic or top rates of income tax. But the speech also contained another important pledge, which was that Labour would keep to Conservati­ve spending plans for two years after the election. In passing, Balls revealed that Blair probably

didn’t realise that Brown was going to make this important promise before he delivered the speech, because the copy of the speech was faxed – in the pre-email era – to Blair’s home on a Sunday during a children’s birthday party.

But Blair didn’t disagree with the policy, which was consistent with the tax message of reassuranc­e. “I don’t think there was any fundamenta­l difference between them,” said Balls. “There were tactical things where they differed on messaging. Gordon didn’t like ‘New Labour’. He didn’t like defining the Labour Party against its past and its history, because he thought that was divisive and thought there was a different way to do it. John Prescott [Labour deputy leader and later deputy prime minister] didn’t like it either. But that was something there wasn’t consultati­on on.

“If you were to say what were Gordon’s worries about Tony in that first period, he was always worried that Tony was going to, in the end, turn on the Labour Party and divide the party through confrontat­ion. Hence the ‘New Labour’ point. Gordon was always worried about the talks with Paddy Ashdown [the Liberal Democrat leader] before the election in 1997, and whether the conversati­on influenced by Roy Jenkins – Roy Jenkins, who, let’s be honest, set up the SDP because he hated the Labour Party – was Tony going to turn on the Labour Party in an SDP lightweigh­t way with the Liberal Democrats, and would PR [proportion­al representa­tion] be part of that agenda? I think he worried about that. But was he worried about Tony stopping him on economic and social policy? Not really.”

Balls insisted: “The incredibly annoying thing about Tony Blair, as far as his supporters were concerned, is that they would have these rows, over foundation hospitals and antisocial behaviour, in the end over the euro, and tuition fees, and you would get them in the room and Tony Blair would say to Alan Milburn or Stephen Byers or Charles Clarke, ‘I’m really sorry but I think Gordon’s right on this one’; fundamenta­lly, they tended to agree. It was really annoying [to some of Blair’s supporters], but it was true.”

He said creative tension produced stress-tested policy, and was especially necessary because Labour had such a huge majority in parliament. He said that when Blair and Brown agreed on Iraq, on the euro (in the end) and on housing policy (neither of them trusted local government to build houses), the outcome was less good.

Although Balls said staying out of the euro was the right policy, he argued that it came at the price of failing to make the wider pro-European argument. “Whereas when there was tension, they got to better places – the outcome on tuition fees was not a bad place, and the outcome on NHS reform was not a bad place.”

Referring to Osborne’s opposition to the EU referendum, Balls said: “There’s no way that Gordon Brown, if he thought a referendum was a bad idea, would have stood back and said I’m going to defer to my friend in the way that George does.”

He said Labour’s record would have been worse if Blair or Brown had either blown up the government or agreed too much. There is a sweet spot in the middle, he said. “I think it normally happens when the individual­s are strong, when there is an external threat, and also when there is a sense of crisis. So there were periods when under huge pressure from the outside, the Major-Clarke partnershi­p was strong. There was a period at the beginning of the pandemic when the Johnson-Sunak partnershi­p was strong. You can say the same about the Thatcher-Howe relationsh­ip, although that was very Thatcher-dominant.

“On the other side of the ledger, when you had Labour weak in the Eighties, and the economy relatively benign, Thatcher and Lawson ended up blowing up their relationsh­ip. The challenge for Blair and Brown was that there wasn’t an external threat politicall­y, and things were relatively benign, so you could have ended up with a Thatcher-Lawson bust-up and in the end it didn’t happen because they were more discipline­d than that. But it could have happened.”

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