Tony Blair’s Canadian Style of Prime Ministerial Government

Tony Blair rolls his eyes at Whitehall.

The British would certainly not say outright that Tony Blair governed like a Canadian prime minister, because it would be beneath the Mother Country to acknowledge one of her former Crown colonies as having provided an example in government. But that is the best conclusion that one could draw from this BBC documentary on Blair’s premiership, which aired in 2007 shortly after his departure from Number 10.

The relevant portion runs from 19:00 to 22:45

Blair operated like a Canadian Prime Minister — like Trudeau I, Chretien, or  Harper, in particular — and exercised his authority to “call consensus,” i.e., to make a decision against a majority of his colleagues, if necessary. The documentary cites his decision to allocate $800 million pounds to the Millennium Dome as one such example. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown alone also decided to transfer the authority to set interest rates from the Treasury to the Bank of England bilaterally, without consulting their cabinet colleagues.

Critics derided Blair’s style as “sofa government,” because he would often make decisions with small groups of ministers, or bilaterally with one minister, or unilaterally while sitting on a sofa in a small office. His Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, and his Press Secretary, Alaister Campbell, would often take part in such meetings as well. Powell’s and Campbell’s attendance of full cabinet meetings also caused a row. So, too, did the order-in-council empowering Powell and Campbell to issue instructions to other ministers. Nevertheless, most of these criticisms of Tony Blair’s “sofa government” and Blair’s use of cabinet as  “rubber stamp,” and Blair’s use smaller groups with cabinet (i.e., a cabinet committee) to do the real work, sound remarkably like how our system of government works in practice here in Canada.

Cabinet Secretary Robin Bulter (equivalent to the Clerk of the Privy Council here) clashed with Prime Minister Blair frequently in 1997 and 1998 and denounced Blair in this BBC documentary for never having understood the concept of cabinet government. In that mid-20th century RP accent (perfect for sounding condescending), Bulter intones, “I don’t really think that Tony Blair ever got cabinet government. What he wanted to do was lead the government in a particular direction. He was impatient to do it, and he didn’t see the value of those processes.”

Blair counters: “The fact is, you’re elected as prime minister to get the job done. You’ve got to assert your authority. If you don’t, then you just get absolutely submerged in endless debates and discussions, and nothing ever actually happens or is driven forward.”

The interviewer asks Blair: “Has it ever bothered you that the two key words in Whitehall are ‘Tony wants?'”

Blair: “No, I think that ‘s great, if that’s what they’re saying about the prime minister. I mean, what do we expect them to be saying? You know, I used to say this occasionally when we had this discussion with the civil servants about it. I used to say them: ‘But I’m the prime minister. I was elected to get the job done, and that’s what I want to happen.’ So (laughs incredulously), what’s the problem?”

Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien, or Stephen Harper could have said the same.



About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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1 Response to Tony Blair’s Canadian Style of Prime Ministerial Government

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