From The West Wing to Reservoir Dogs: Executive Power under Blair

At times during his time as Prime Minister Tony Blair was criticised for his reliance on a small coterie of political advisors and his apparent sidelining of the Cabinet, to the extent that several commentators observed that Number 10 often took on the appearance of the US political drama The West Wing rather than the more collegial system of Cabinet Government which usually characterises the British system. One striking illustration of this came in a book by the former editor of The Times, Peter Stothard, which looked at the run-up to the war in Iraq in 2003. At a key moment in the Iraq crisis Stothard and the documentary photographer, Nick Danziger, were allowed to follow the Prime Minister around for a month as he shuttled between London and Washington and sought to secure Commons support for military action in Iraq. Stothard’s book was serialised in The Times on 3 May 2003 (if you have access) but perhaps more striking than the narrative is Nick Danziger’s collection of photographs, later exhibited under the banner Blair at War. The full collection of around a hundred photos used to be available on Danziger’s website, there is now a much smaller selection available to view but they are no less striking for that. On one level Danziger’s photographs offer a seductive insight of an all too human Prime Minister, playing his guitar in Downing Street surrounded by his young son’s toys, drinking tea from chipped mugs and composing his ‘back me or I quit’ speech surrounded by photos of his children. One obvious theme is the loneliness of leadership, particularly when making difficult decisions. The first photo in the collection which shows Blair sitting on his own in an RAF helicopter was used for the cover both of The Times magazine which ran the story, and Stothard’s book.

However, another noticeable feature of these photos, which was not missed by observers at the time, was of a Prime Minister whose main source of support and advice was not his Cabinet, but a small group of advisors. In a number of shots, including 7, 9, 10 and 11 in this selection, we see Blair surrounded by the same small group, usually comprising his press secretary Alistair Campbell, David Manning his foreign policy advisor, Jonathan Powell his Chief of Staff, his speechwriter Peter Hyman (now head of a free school), and Sally Morgan his political advisor. The key impression to some, was of a Presidential figure taking important decisions on the basis of the advice of an inner court of unelected and largely appointed special advisors, while the Cabinet was marginalised. The image is reinforced if we contrast these shots with shot 12 which shows the Cabinet drinking tea, apparently outside the room where the real action is taking place. The Presidential feel is further enhanced by shots of Blair with US President George Bush. Although few of these are now included in the selection on Danziger’s website, the famous Reservoir Dogs shot, number 18, has to be seen. Sadly the photo of the leather-jacketed Leader of the House, John Reid,  looking like an enforcer getting instructions to go out and beat up someone for crossing the head guy has gone.

The photos and Stothard’s commentary prompted a sharp response from some quarters. I distinctly remember listening to an attack on Blair’s Presidential style by International Development Secretary, Clare Short, on the Today programme on Radio 4 just after Stothard’s book was serialised and her reference to the impression given by the article and Danziger’s photographs. I have tried in vain to find a copy of Clare Short’s comments on the Today programme, although this article from The Daily Telegraph refers to them. Blair survived all of this, but the impression of his detached Presidential style, which was in part created by coverage such as this, certainly stuck.

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