New Labour infighting and sleaze concerns laid bare in archive papers

No 10 aides warned Tony Blair that Gordon Brown may have breached ministerial code, files show

The extent of New Labour infighting and of Tony Blair’s struggle with allegations of sleaze has been underscored by Cabinet Office papers that show No 10 aides privately thought Gordon Brown could have breached the ministerial code.

Files released to the National Archives show that in 1998 Blair’s chief spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, urged him to privately rebuke Clare Short, then international development secretary, after she publicly denounced cabinet colleagues as “vultures”.

And Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, warned him in the same year that he needed to get to grips with what he saw as a lack of discipline among government ministers, expressing concern about ministerial probity. So grave was the problem thought to be that No 10 considered creating a “commissioner for ministerial ethics” to shore up public trust.

Powell even went so far as to suggest in writing to Blair that there was reason to suspect that his closest political friend and, ultimately, greatest political rival, Gordon Brown, was breaching strict rules on ministerial standards, an offence for which a cabinet member would usually be expected to resign.

“At some stage we will have to deal with the ways in which some ministers are dealing with their political work. How, for example, is Gordon paying for his newsletter to all party members and his receptions (almost certainly in breach of the ministerial code). He is not the only one,” Powell wrote to Blair on 20 February 1998.

In another note, written to the prime minister about a month earlier addressing possible ways to deal with parliamentary questions on ministerial propriety, Powell suggested sending an “edict to tell ministers to be more careful”.

The note read: “I think Gordon is probably right when he says people are being too lax. Did [then foreign minister] Derek Fatchett really need to take his wife to Australia etc. Do you want to pursue this (with the implied admission that all has not been handled well)?”

A handwritten note from Blair in the margin reads: “Let me speak to cabinet and get them to do it by word of mouth.” It gives an indication of the time and effort that was going into trying to hold together cabinet discipline in the early years of his premiership.

Three days prior, for example, one of Blair’s closest advisers, Anji Hunter, felt moved to email Powell passing on concerns expressed by an unknown colleague that the prime minister was looking only at the big picture and that No 10 should not “take our eyes off the sleaze factor”, which was thought to be eroding the Blair government’s moral authority.

In another handwritten note, Blair’s policy adviser Liz Lloyd replied: “I, too, am worried about this.” She suggested pushing a story that Blair was privately admonishing ministers over standards.

Blair was also urged to privately deal with specific ministers, including Short, who Campbell warned was likely to embarrass the government. A documentary showed her accusing a ministerial colleague of telling a journalist she had likened Ulster Unionists to the Ku Klux Klan during a cabinet meeting. Denying the claim, Short told the film-makers: “It’s just utterly malicious, it’s someone from within the cabinet because it’s a lie about a discussion that did take place. It’s very sad. It’s extraordinary that people on your own side would do such things.”

Briefing the prime minister on the affair shortly afterwards, Campbell wrote: “As you may have seen, I sought to kill the latest Clare story by being supportive. The trouble is that she will believe it. Her office have already been on saying how grateful they are. In other words, she’ll do something again before long.

“Can I suggest you write to her on these lines: for public consumption, we have been supportive over the remarks made on the documentary by you. However, I have to tell you that I regard such comments as unhelpful and self-indulgent. I understand that your department was advised not to cooperate with such a project, given the way that these film-makers generate publicity. And as there is no evidence whatever that a member of the cabinet briefed against you, other than surmise, it was ill-advised to say so.”

The confidential papers were released to the National Archives as part of the plan to release government records when they are 20 years old.

Commons ‘hemisphere’

The House of Commons
The House of Commons. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK parliament/AFP/Getty Images

The Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown wanted to redesign the House of Commons in a “hemisphere” shape as a symbol of his party and New Labour’s joint reform agenda, according to newly released official papers.

Ashdown was keen to expand cooperation between the two parties – nicknamed “the project” – after Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory. In a letter to Blair, he proposed that the Commons chamber could be reshaped as a hemisphere in recognition of the new culture of “consultation, pluralism [and] debate” that they hoped to inaugurate.

He wrote: “As a symbol of this we might even say we shall alter the shape of parliament itself, turning it into a hemisphere and setting up a design competition to do this before the millennium.”

The proposal met with little enthusiasm in No 10. In a memo to the prime minister, Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, wrote: “I can’t believe that he has proposed a hemispherical House of Commons. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this project?”

Dome wow factor

The Millennium Dome
The Millennium Dome. Photograph: Phil Crow/Alamy

Tony Blair was worried about the lack of “wow” factor in early plans for the Millennium Dome, a project he inherited from John Major’s Conservative government and decided to go ahead with despite the opposition of many of his cabinet colleagues.

Newly released National Archive documents show that Charlie Falconer, who inherited responsibility for the Dome after Peter Mandelson’s resignation over a personal loan controversy, frequently lamented the lack of “wows”.

“We need at least 10 wows” but the zones were “too samey and too worthy”, Falconer wrote in one memo to Blair. Blair annotated the note: “This is v worrying.” The Dome was a controversial scheme, but Falconer wrote to Blair: “We have a dome and we must all work to make it a success.”

Mandelson, after his resignation, wanted to retain some kind of continuing role in the Millennium Experience, and Blair had in mind a sort of “PPS [parliamentary private secretary] role for Peter on the Dome”, the documents show.

Claire Pillman, of the Millennium Unit at the culture department, said Mandelson could not be appointed as a special adviser on the Dome as it would be seen as a return to “shady figure behind the throne”, and Lord Falconer risked being portrayed as a “convenient puppet”.


Kevin Rawlinson and Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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