New Books: Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered

by Jon Davis and John Rentoul

“Combining first-hand sources and independent judgement, this is the first book on the Blair-Brown years which moves beyond journalism, biography and memoir to being the first draft of history”Ed Balls

Tony Blair bequeathed a significant legacy, including a settlement in Northern Ireland, revived public services and a changed society. He was globally influential, a persuasive and activist leader. Yet he will always be associated with his decision to join US President George W. Bush in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Most prime ministers are unpopular when they leave office, but his reputation continued to decline in the years after. Iraq was clearly one of the most important reasons for this, but it was only part of a progression by which Blair went from Olympian heights of popularity and electoral success to becoming toxic for many in the UK.

By attempting to answer some of the most contentious, complicated and unanswered questions of the Blair government, by giving an account of how it worked, and giving due weight to the testimony of the very people who operated within it, Davis and Rentoul seek to provide a balanced account of how decisions were made. The Blair government was far from perfect but is Blair’s reputation as a bad prime minister a fair one? Is it not time for the record of the Blair government to be reconsidered and eventually rebalanced?

Drawing on a wealth ofnever-seen-before, first-handtestimony from many of the key players (including Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Ed Balls, David Blunkett, Tessa Jowell, and a host of senior civil servants), Heroes or Villains?is a considered,fair, and balancedaccount of the rise and fall of New Labour from its hopeful origins, via boom and bust, to Blair’s retirement in 2007.

Tracing the evolution of Blairite policy across the spectrum, from health and education to the liberal interventionist foreign policy that led to involvement in Iraq, the book charts the difficult relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and illuminates the struggles between 'Blairites' and 'Brownites', as well as the equally important tussles between New Labour ministers and their civil service colleagues. It provides an assessment of the criticisms of how Blair ran his administration, focusing on the machinery of government and on the criticisms of decision making at the centre.

Sally Morgan, Director of Government Relations,“The most serious conversations I’ve ever had with him about whether or when he should go were in 2002 not 2004. Because in 2002 he was very seriously sitting down saying, “Is there a case for me announcing that I should go at the next election?”

Sir John Holmes, principal private secretary to the Prime Minister, and previously private secretary to John Major: ““I think this stuff about sofa government is highly overdone. I mean, yes,he [Blair] did have a more informal style but the idea that before thatwhat really counted was Cabinet meetings and Cabinet Committees is bollocks.”

“For me personally, and for many civil servants at the heart of the government’s policy agenda, the Blair years were some of the best of our careers.” Sir David Normington, senior civil servant to the Home Office

“Gordon was not the leader Tony was” – Ed Balls, former Economic Secretary to the Treasury
Tony Blair, when asked in 2011 to reflect on how he reacted to 9/11 ten years earlier: “If I knew then what I know now then I would take a far deeper approach to deal with the international terrorism situation…”

Dr Jon Davis is Director of The Strand Group at The Policy Institute, King's College London, and author of Prime Ministers and Whitehall (2007). He is the lecturer and coordinator of several otherteaching modules including 'The History of the Prime Minister since 1945—in partnership withNo. 10 DowningSt', and 'The Treasury and an Introduction to Economic History—in partnership with HM Treasury'. He worked as an investment banker before turning to an academic career, and also spent a year in the Cabinet Office's Modernising Government Secretariat.

John Rentoul is Chief Political Commentator for The Independent, Visiting Professor at King'sCollege, London, and the author of an acclaimed biography of Tony Blair. He has previously beena political reporter at The Independent, the BBC, and the New Statesman. Together with his co-authorJon Davis, he ran the Blair Government course at Queen Mary, from 2008 to 2014.

The Blair Years (Kings College London)

The MA module, taught since 2016 at King’s College, London (previously at Queen Mary, University of London) examines how Tony Blair’s New Labour Governments from 1997-2007 governed at the highest level from the perspective of ultra-contemporary history. Special attention is given to the memoirs and diaries of central protagonists, and a high-profile range of guests allow students to fully interrogate their sources face-to-face. The course is taught by Dr Jon Davis, John Rentoul, and Michelle Clement.

For further information, visit The Blair Years course.


• The Blair-Brown Coalition
• Sofa
• Spin, Spads, and Sir Humphreys
• The Treasury: The Brown-Balls Partnership
• The Iraq War

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