Tony Blair popped into King’s College London this morning to discuss ‘how to run a government’ with his former adviser Michael Barber. Amongst other things, the former Prime Minister discussed David Cameron’s efforts to remodel No.10 to make it more Blair like, as James reveals in his column this week. But he made no attempt to disguise the fact that he thinks structures are no substitute for the ‘guy’ at the top being on the case 24/7 when looking to deliver change:
‘It works when you have the clearest possible sense of priorities and what you want to achieve … you’ve got to have the Prime Minister’s authority behind this all the time.
‘My view is, which is based on my practical experience, is that you need a certain capability at the centre for the Prime Minister to independently know what’s going on and to be able drive through change. Because what you find in government is that some departments get it and really move to make the changes that are necessary … and some frankly are a little more sleepy.’
He admitted Cameron’s new ten task forces to deliver policy have their place, but only if the Prime Minister is driving the agenda:
‘I’m not against ministerial task forces and so on – all of that has its place. But I do think that the guy at the top has to be driving it all the time.’
While Blair’s is not so sure about Cameron’s laid back approach to the job, he is a supporter of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse and the ‘Devo Manc’ plan to devolve £6 billion of NHS spending to Greater Manchester. But his support was caveated with the need for good local structures:
‘It’s the right way to go but it does depend on the leadership at a local level, which in the case in Manchester is there. If it’s not there, you end up with a problem…if people don’t their job, there needs to be enough of an energy in local politics to force change.’
As ever, Blair reminded the audience that he is an arch pragmatist. He told them that is currently advising 18 different countries, all of which have ‘issues’ in delivering policy. His argument is that ‘so much of government today is not about ideology, it’s about practical solutions.’ But given his recent experiences in the private sector, he was keen to point out that ‘government is hard, government is a lot harder than people think’.
Normally whenever Blair speaks these days, it’s related to his beleaguered foreign policy efforts or to make a dig at Ed Miliband. The discussion today served as a refreshing reminder that on domestic matters, he has a solid track record of reform and his legacy is far less toxic. But even Blair must be saddened that it’s the Conservatives, not Labour, who are now successfully promoting Blairite reforms.