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Tony Blair’s aides feared his New Labour government was losing “moral authority” after it was hit by a welter of “sleaze” allegations, according to newly released official files.
Papers released by the National Archives show his advisers were so concerned they considered creating a “commissioner for ministerial ethics” in an attempt to restore public trust in his administration.
Within months of sweeping to power in the 1997 general election, the government was beset by a series of damaging headlines regarding the conduct of ministers which threatened to take the shine of its victory.
They included the £650,000 refurbishment of the lord chancellor, Lord (Derry) Irvine’s official flat, a £1 million donation from Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, and ministers taking their partners on official overseas visits.
Lord Irvine, Mr Blair’s old pupil master when he was a trainee barrister, particularly infuriated opposition MPs when he defended the restoration of his apartment in the Palace of Westminster – including £59,000 for wallpaper – as a “noble cause”.
In a note to Mr Blair dated February 17 1998, his chief of staff Jonathan Powell noted:” We have tried to think of possible initiatives that would get us out of the mess but all of them have pretty substantial downsides.
“We could mount ‘operation humility’. You could say tomorrow that it was a mistake and you’re ensuring that it won’t happen again (but where does that leave Derry?).
“Derry could go up and do interviews saying that he is sorry (but he is not very good at that).”
Meanwhile, Anji Hunter, one of Mr Blair’s closest aides, said that one of her contacts had warned that the continuing controversies were damaging public perceptions of the government.
“He understands entirely why TB is ‘Big Picture, not froth and tittle-tattle’, but we should not take our eyes off the sleaze factor,” she wrote.
“Says out there amongst his milieu we are losing moral authority by the second as partners, refurbishments, tax hypocrisy take hold. Feels we are letting it drift without doing anything about it.”
In April Mr Powell informed Mr Blair that he and other senior aides were working on a “counter sleaze and perks strategy” in an attempt to prevent further damage.
He said that while they could not stop Lord Irvine moving into his newly revamped flat, the lord chancellor needed to “adopt a low profile” while they worked out a proper rehabilitation strategy for him.
“We believe that we have a serious problem that the perception of sleaze has gone deep into the public consciousness and that only a fairly major step will begin to reverse the current climate,” he wrote.
“We should look at the concept of a commissioner for ministerial ethics, but we are worried we may be creating a rod for our own backs.”
In the meantime he urged the prime minister to use his impending cabinet reshuffle to “send a message” about ministerial “perks”.
“One of our major problems is the public perception that you are prepared to tolerate such abuses,” he added.