Downing Street feared that a group portrait of Tony Blair’s cabinet that the Scottish National Portrait Gallery wanted to commission to mark New Labour’s 1997 election victory would look “triumphalist” and be unlikely to win votes in Scotland, newly released documents reveal.
The gallery proposed a portrait by Peter Howson, a distinguished member of the new wave of expressionist artists who emerged from the Glasgow School of Art in the 80s, and was willing to pay. With the fee likely to be “substantial”, Downing Street aides were also concerned about negative coverage if any public funds were used, the documents released by the National Archives show.
Jonathan Powell, the chief of staff, wrote: “Not worth it unless it gets us votes in Scotland.” The press secretary Alastair Campbell worried it “might take a lot of time”, and the No 10 adviser Pat McFadden was concerned that “Howson might produce unexpected results”.
Blair’s political secretary Angus Lapsley wrote to the prime minister in July 1998: “My own view is that the very argument that the SNPG advance for doing it now – that 2 May was a historic moment to be captured – is the thinking that would damn the idea for many. Given that cabinet portraits are such a rarity, it might be sniped at as triumphalist or premature. In the meantime there is the more practical issue of reshuffles. Which cabinet would they paint?
“On the other hand, it might be a good signal to Scotland that the UK cabinet remains very much ‘theirs’. I also understand that the NPG [National Portrait Gallery] in London is commissioning a portrait of you, so a decision from here to discourage a group portrait might look a bit well, presidential!”
In a handwritten response in the margins of the memo, Blair wrote: “Don’t mind in the least. Ask GB [Gordon Brown]. He will have a view about Scotland.”
Lapsley reported back: “Gordon’s reaction: no strong feelings; on balance anti; will have no specific impact in Scotland.”
Lapsley continued: “I think the reshuffle point is the trickiest. Content to just let this lie for a while?” To which Blair responded: “Yes. I’m not overly keen.”