Anji Hunter came to talk to our postgraduate students at King’s College London this week and gave a wonderful insight into the rise and rule of Labour’s longest-serving prime minister.
She worked for Tony Blair for longer than anyone, starting as a temporary research assistant in 1987, when he had been an MP for four years. She was studying for a degree in history and English, having gone to university late, with two young children, and Blair said: “Do you fancy coming back and working for me when you have finished your degree?”
She went on: “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’ I put down my terms. I was allowed to have expenses, travel expenses, though no pay, but at least I got my travel expenses. And I could work four days a week, so it suited me very well.
“He said: ‘You have to get a first.’ It was a fantastic thing to say to me because I then got a first – it certainly incentivised me. So I’m here because I’m the longest serving one.”
She was this week’s special guest at the “Blair Years” class that I teach at King’s with Michelle Clement and Jon Davis, in which we give students direct access to the best form of primary sources: the people who were “in the room where it happened”.
She described Blair’s first office in parliament: “When you go up to the committee corridor, you’ve got these big steps, just go left, there are about three or four committee rooms overlooking the river along that bit. There’s a little staircase down. And that is where Tony had his first office, a windowless room, which actually was closed down after being there for three years because it was filled with asbestos.”
As research assistant, one of her early tasks was preparing speeches for Blair when he was shadow energy secretary in 1988-89: “We were opposing the government’s privatisation of the utilities, which he wasn’t massively against, it has to be said, but had to be – that was the Labour Party position. I remember compiling masses of stuff on the cost of the advertising, because the government did spend a massive amount on these modern ads, that no one had ever seen before on TV. And so I was saying, ‘These bad Tories, spending all our money on advertising’ – that was about as good as we could do.”
She was seconded from Blair’s office to work for Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, in the 1992 election. “It gave me the experience of being in a general election campaign – the 24/7 nature of it, the planning of it beforehand, and the actual execution of it. So I really understood about election campaigns and I just knew what worked and what didn’t, and we lost that general election.
“Tony spent the next two years, ’92 to ’94, very frustrated with the direction of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil; he was a perfectly nice guy, but not a massive reformer, not a massive progressive, a bit of a statist.”
She told the story of Smith’s death, a story she told brilliantly when she came to speak to the “Blair Years” class three years ago.
She gave the class a whirlwind guide to the “culture of winning” that Blair instilled in the party; the team he and Hunter put together (“I’d spotted these people and brought them in”); and the election victory in 1997. “We were a close knit, highly disciplined group of individuals.” She read out “Tony’s rules” for them, from his book, A Journey: “Work comes first. No blame culture. Fun, in its proper place, is good. Disloyalty has no place. Look out for each other. Stick together.”
And she told about managing Bill Clinton’s arrival, with Blair, at the G8 conference in Birmingham in 1998. This was four months after the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken in the US. She said: “Clinton and he are going to come out of this door and they’re going to walk along this line, meeting all the dignitaries of Birmingham and all the other important people that we needed to, you know, give favours to – I mean give thanks to. I’m looking around and I suddenly spot this woman who is the dead image of Monica Lewinsky.”
She alerted Liz Symons, a Foreign Office minister and friend: “We go up to her and we say, ‘Hello, can we see your pass?’ And she showed us her pass. She was a guest of the Birmingham Post newspaper” – brought in by the newspaper as a publicity stunt. “Bloody hell, Tony and Bill are about to walk in; we’ve got this woman right here, all the cameras. So I came running up and they’re just about to come through the door and I say, ‘Prime minister’ – because when he’s in public I called him prime minister – ‘Prime minister, we’ve got a problem out there: we’ve got somebody who’s I think going to be thrusting herself forward towards you both, and I’m just dealing with it.’
“And he looked at me. He has that look, it’s called the ‘SO look’, which is, ‘this is a Sackable Offence if it goes wrong’. So I have about 10 seconds. I go and stand with Liz Symons next to this woman. And Tony looks across and sees me, because that’s what he’s looking for, to see what the problem is, and he sees the problem. Bill hasn’t seen a thing. So as they’re coming along, I just pull her down, push her to the floor.
“Symons is very attractive, very well presented, and pushes herself forward into Bill’s arms and he was delighted, and Tony just whipped him on.”
After Clinton and Blair had gone past, Hunter picked the woman up and apologised to her: “I’m really sorry about that, I was just doing my job.” She replied: “Don’t worry, so was I; I get paid anyway.”
Hunter then took questions from the students. One asked if Blair was a triumph of style over substance: “I completely disagree with that, obviously. There was this myth about that Tony was all presentation, and Gordon was the substance. I think Gordon could be a showman too, but Tony was more simpatico, more of an extrovert. Gordon was – I mean, I grew up in Scotland, so I know people like him – he was the son of the manse, the son of a vicar, more closed. But I dispute the fact that Tony was a showman. Tony was a great intellect, had a great wisdom, great judgement and was perfect in virtually every way.”
Most of the class were born in 1997 or 1998, after Blair became prime minister. Just more than half of them say they have a “net positive” view of Blair; the rest say they are negative but want to learn more. It will be interesting to see how their attitudes develop as the course progresses.
Previous articles about the “Blair Years” class are here.