The Labour Party won a landslide victory at the 1997 General Election. This is an eyewitness account of Tony Blair’s first Cabinet meeting by education secretary David Blunkett.
The New Labour government swept into office with a landslide majority at the May 1997 general election aimed to be consciously different, not just from the Conservative administration which had ruled Britain for the previous 18 years but from earlier Labour governments.
The following account was given by David Blunkett, then newly appointed as education secretary.
Tony Blair’s first cabinet meeting, May 1997
At the first cabinet meeting, I think we were all just finding our feet. I was next to Derry Irvine [Lord Chancellor], with Gordon Brown [Chancellor of the Exchequer] on Derry Irvine’s other side and Frank Dobson [Secretary of State for Health] sitting sullenly on my left. I think Frank was contemplating that it was going to be difficult in a New Labour government.
The two things I remember most from that meeting are Gordon Brown persuading Tony [Blair – Prime Minister] to cut our salaries and the decision to call each other by our first names – including Tony – rather than having to go through the palaver of saying “prime minister”, “foreign secretary”, “lord chancellor”.
It is quite clear that not a great deal is going to be discussed at cabinet. Instead, business is going to be done informally, one-to-one with Tony, or through cabinet committees.
At the first cabinet meeting, Tony indicated that he would like everyone to notify No 10 before going on any radio or television programme or undertaking any major interview. I suggested that he, as a past master at the art of managing the media, would recognise better than any of us the way in which speed is of the essence. If we were dealing with an issue at 11.30am, say, and weren’t on the television by 12, we would have missed the lunchtime news broadcasts and would be left flat-footed. He replied that he understood this and that common sense would have to prevail, but the subsequent minute didn’t reflect this latter point.
(Since that meeting a circular has been sent round asking us to notify No 10 of any lunch or dinner dates with journalists. I’ve told the office simply to ignore it.)
While the first cabinet stretched to an hour and a half, the second lasted only an hour, and even then Tony was quite keen to get away.
Source: The Blunkett Tapes, by David Blunkett (Bloomsbury, 2006)
Tony Blair and Cabinet colleagues, 2005 (l-r: John Reid, Blair, unknown, Alan Johnson, Hilary Armstrong)