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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 January 2006, 09:31 GMT
Case for Brown
On Sunday 08 January 2006 Andrew Marr interviewed Tony Blair MP, Prime Minister

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Tony Blair MP
Tony Blair MP, Prime Minister

ANDREW MARR: And that was the former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, which takes us neatly to the current British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Welcome Prime Minister.

TONY BLAIR: Good morning.

ANDREW MARR: I suppose we should start by talking about Charles Kennedy - you saw him a lot across the despatch box, of course, one of your opponents. How did you rate him as a politician?

TONY BLAIR: I think he had a tremendous, and has a tremendous, instinctive feel for where, where people are. He was always very, very easy and good to work with. Someone who I think had a lot of integrity and I feel very sorry for him, actually, in his present situation and I wish him well.

ANDREW MARR: You've always been very generous with your political advice to anyone, so what's your political advice to his party now - because they've got this question as to whether David Cameron has changed the political landscape, put the squeeze on the Liberal Democrats and possibly Labour too?

TONY BLAIR: Well I think it's more to do with the fact that actually everyone is coming to terms with the fact that Labour's won three election victories and therefore the Conservatives are having to try to come to terms with that and for the Lib-Dems, as I've always said, I think they've reached the, the high water mark of being able to be different things to different people in different constituencies, and they've now got to make a decision.

And their decision is to whether to become modern social democrats, in which case they're far more like New Labour, or whether to be more like the old Liberal Party, in which you carry on with the sort of paper politics, community politics - which can be very effective incidentally, and where you pick up seats, but you're never really aspiring to be a party that can be in government.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think in any sense we're returning a little bit towards two-party politics?

TONY BLAIR: I just don't think you can tell at the moment. I think it's in a great state of flux. But I think, in a curious way, for us as the Labour Party, there's a sort of rock of stability there that we need to, to build upon, because actually everyone is, is - the real issue for the Conservative Party is how do we cope with the fact that for the first time in the Conservative Party history we have lost three elections in a row, right?

And then for the Lib-Dems I think they're coming to terms with the fact that they can't really, anymore, continue to try and be more Tory than the Tories when they're fighting Tory seats, more Labour than Labour when they're fighting Labour seats. So both of those parties have got decisions to take and then we've got a decision to take, which is whether we build on what we've achieved or whether we throw it away.

ANDREW MARR: In a sense, the Tories have taken their decision. There must be part of you which looks with admiration at what David Cameron has been doing. He took your war book, he has learned an enormous amount from you, and most of what he's saying at the moment you must agree with.

TONY BLAIR: Well I think it's, it's, you know, the first thing to say is New Labour ideas are in the ascendant. I mean we should be pleased at that. You know, the fact is, for the first time in my political lifetime, it's the Conservative Party that's having to readjust to an agenda set by the Labour Party, not the other way round. But I think the truth of the matter is that he's repositioning, at the moment - but that's not the same as having a policy agenda for the future. And the question that we should be posing is a set policy questions for the Conservatives, as to whether they can really, having talked the talk, walk the walk.

ANDREW MARR: Has he said anything, over the last couple of weeks, that you could possibly disagree with?

TONY BLAIR: Yes, well I do disagree with two distinctive policy positions he's taken. One is on saying that schools can bring back academic selection, which I think is damaging.

ANDREW MARR: We'll come on to that later, yes.

TONY BLAIR: But that's important though, because it's an indication of instinct as well as policy. And then I totally, I think, I'm sure he will change this position, but to say that he will not join with other conservative parties in Europe, I think is a big, big mistake.

ANDREW MARR: Slightly, I mean that's a relatively minor thing, I mean -

TONY BLAIR: Yes, except if you were in government you would find it was a big problem.

ANDREW MARR: But immigration, getting together with Bob Geldof on world poverty, taking the environment seriously, when it comes to the NHS saying that he's absolutely pro NHS, changing the policy - these are all things which make him, to many people, sound absolutely close to the centre ground. People don't need to feel frightened about voting Tory.

TONY BLAIR: You know, as I always say, if someone comes up in politics to you and says I agree with you, to turn round and say well I'm sorry that's unacceptable is a bit stupid. So, of course -

ANDREW MARR: But you would, you would accept - you don't buy any of the argument that underneath it he's some kind of extremist. You accept the sincerity of what he's doing?

TONY BLAIR: Well I think you've got to test the sincerity - that's all I'm saying. I've put a question mark - look - what I think in politics is if you end up, when someone's obviously trying to reposition their political party, and junking a whole lot of their old policy, if you end up sort of saying this man is the most dangerous thing that's going to happen to the country, you just make yourself look ridiculous.

On the other hand, as I say, repositioning your party is not the same as fundamentally sorting out the policy agenda. Now when we created New Labour, this was a ten year process that Gordon and I undertook between '87 and '97 - ten years - this has been a ten week process. Now I'm not saying that he won't get there, I'm simply saying you've got to put a question mark over it. And you see, you talk about the environment -

ANDREW MARR: Sorry, what if he does get there?

TONY BLAIR: Well if he does get there then it's for us to take the agenda to a new level, because we will have won the old agenda.

ANDREW MARR: Doesn't that mean, in your terms, in Labour terms, that there's a constant drift to the right?

TONY BLAIR: No. Unless you say every time you modernise you go rightwards. Look, this is absolutely critical to understanding where British politics is at the moment and where the Labour Party should be. We have set the agenda that others are all having to gravitate around. I mean that is the issue for the Conservative Party, how do you come to terms with the fact that Labour's won three elections.

The real issue for the Lib-Dems - leave aside, obviously, Charles' personal position - the real issue for them is do they become modern social democrats, or are they old style liberals. What's the issue for us therefore? Having got in the ascendant, how do we build on what we've achieved and take it to the next level, and that's the importance of the reform programme we've got.

ANDREW MARR: Well let's, let's turn to that because the Cameronians and the Tory modernisers would say the real thing is that we actually agree with Tony Blair about a lot of what Tony Blair says but the Labour Party doesn't really. And when it comes to education, which is probably the biggest test that you face, 70 odd of your own MPs - and not the usual suspects in many cases - opposed the white paper, are very, very worried about academic selection and feel that it's going to be, it's going to be sort of slipped in in some way. Now are you going to reassure them further about - is there room for manoeuvre?

TONY BLAIR: Well, there are two things here. The first is to say that the essence of the education proposals is this. You have already got specialist schools, most secondary schools are specialist schools - in other words they have a specialist subject - and they also, all those specialist schools, have outside people who come and sit on the governing body and take part in the school - it's a partnership with external sponsors. In addition, you've got the city academies, that are in the inner city areas and which have got far greater freedoms.

Now, building on that, the essence of the education proposals is this: that if schools want to become self-governing trusts and have a relationship - it might be with a local university, or local business, or a local charity, or voluntary sector foundation - if they want to do that, they should be able to do that, subject to no academic selection, because we're against that, and fair funding for all schools, and they should be able to do that without having to go to the local education authority and ask permission or to central government and ask permission. In other words, it's a, it's a power.

ANDREW MARR: If a school has no real autonomy over what is taught, the curriculum, because there is a national curriculum and that continues, and no real autonomy about who comes to that school, what real power does a school have to change itself dramatically, to make itself the better school that you want it to be?

TONY BLAIR: Well you can see this with, with the specialist schools and the city academies now. They've got freedom, for example, over how they use their own assets, they've got freedom as to how they organise the school, run the school itself, and they can have freedom -

ANDREW MARR: It's going to stay that ... limited as far as you're concerned ...

TONY BLAIR: No - it's ... limited because -

ANDREW MARR: ... pumped into the school, if I may just pursue this -


ANDREW MARR: - you've got the specialist schools, you've got, for instance, a specialist school which specialises in languages, you've got some kid who is particularly talented at languages, are you saying that that child should not have any special access to the school, shouldn't be at the top of the list for that school?

TONY BLAIR: But you already have that with specialist schools. You see -

ANDREW MARR: Yes, so what's, so what's the differences between languages, say, and a child who is good at maths, a child who is good at English, where is the, where is the great philosophical difference?

TONY BLAIR: Well the difference is between academic selection, in the sense that you set some sort of exam or test for the kids that they've got to pass, and selecting by aptitude, where a kid will have a particular aptitude in a particular subject. Now that's already allowed by specialist schools, it's already allowed in city academies. So -

ANDREW MARR: So there is selection but around a particular issue, a bit more of that perhaps?

TONY BLAIR: We, we've had that, I mean all we were doing is continuing those same rules. But the freedom that self-governing trusts will have is the freedom, for example, to say, here is an outside business or a - let's say the local university - we enter into partnership with them, we work with them in order to develop the particular specialism we've got - it's a permissive power and it will give schools a lot more freedom to do what they want and when I read things, from some of teachers' unions and others saying -

ANDREW MARR: From your own deputy, John Prescott.

TONY BLAIR: Well, well that's a different issue, which I'm happy to come on to, but I was going to say some of the teachers' unions say well schools don't want this power. I say to them, fine, they don't need to have it, but if they want to then we shouldn't be able to stop them.

And the reason why I think this is so important is this: when I talked about the Labour Party building on the success we've had so far, if the Labour Party is going to carry on governing, it's got to carry on being the party of aspiration, it's got to carry on being the party that is not about government telling people what to do but government empowering people to do it for themselves.

And therefore we've put in this huge amount of investment into education and health, and we will continue to do so; the public wants that and likes that, but if we want to carry on gaining the consent of the British people for that investment, we've got to show how you, the individual parent or school, or you the individual patient, has real power in the system to affect your own health care or education for your own benefit. That's why it's so important.

ANDREW MARR: It doesn't seem as if you can convince your own party about education at the moment. Like I said, the numbers are pretty tough against you -

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, but the numbers -

ANDREW MARR: - and in fact your own deputy, I mentioned John Prescott talking about the two tier system, making his disquiet very public - this hasn't happened before.

TONY BLAIR: Well, actually, I think it probably has.

ANDREW MARR: Not in - not in these terms it hasn't.

TONY BLAIR: But I think that in relation to, in relation to my backbenchers, or indeed others, there is a concern, are you going to bring back selection - it's there in the white paper - we have no intention of bringing back academic selection.

As I say, schools already have a certain amount of flexibility, we've just talked about that, we're going to retain that, of course, it would be wrong to get rid of it, but the dividing line in this is with the Conservatives who are saying schools can bring back the 11-plus, if that's what they want to do - which I think would be a totally regressive and retrograde move, so, so -

ANDREW MARR: So, very, very simple actually just to legislate to outlaw it.

TONY BLAIR: But we already have. I think people seem to have a misunderstanding about this, in the ...

ANDREW MARR: So long as people misunderstand it, couldn't you make it, you can always make it clearer.

TONY BLAIR: The point is the white paper already makes it clear, the legislation will make it clear, but what is not and cannot be disputed is that if you look at the education results so far there's no doubt of the progress that's been made and what we're doing is building on that progress. And if you take the health service, it's exactly the same.

If you've got a patient who goes to see their GP and supposing there's a six month waiting list at their local hospital and 50 miles up the road a hospital can do it in one month, why on earth, given all the money we're putting in, shouldn't the patient say thank you, I'll take that one month waiting list rather than the six months.

ANDREW MARR: David Cameron would say amen to that, a lot of your own backbenchers wouldn't -

TONY BLAIR: Well I'm not sure about that actually -

ANDREW MARR: - on incapacity benefit, on the education reforms, on the 90 day detention, you face a whole series of revolts and rebellions in the coming year. You know, this is going to be, I suppose, your toughest parliamentary year ahead ...

TONY BLAIR: How many times - no, no - how many times -

ANDREW MARR: I said parliamentary, I mean I haven't asked you that before.

TONY BLAIR: Well. Look, you and I have been doing these interviews one way or another for -

ANDREW MARR: Some time.

TONY BLAIR: - yeah, for 11 years or more, and it has always been the case that part of the Labour Party has been difficult to persuade on certain aspects of New Labour - you know that - I mean it's always been the case. And I'm not saying it's not tougher as you take it to a new level, it is tougher in one way, but in another way it's exactly the same, do you - look, why have we won these three elections for the first time in Labour's history?

Because we've been in basically the right position for the British public - and the right position now, is to take the changes further, and they're not changes to the right - there's nothing right wing about saying to an old age pensioner, who is waiting in pain, we can get you your operation quicker, free at the point of use - that's not right wing, that's left wing. It's progressive.

ANDREW MARR: I suppose one of the things that's changed that is, in one of those previous interviews, you said that you weren't going to stand again if you won the last election. Has that resulted in a certain loss of authority and discipline, at the centre, because that's how it looks from outside ...

TONY BLAIR: You know, if you don't say that, and Mrs Thatcher in her third term got into a, I think she eventually had to say I'm going on and on and on and then got into a whole series of problems from that - you pays your money and you takes your choice.

The important thing is to get on with the job and that's what we're doing, so - and, and I think that the one thing I would say, because I think this is important to emphasise to the public, there is no doubt in my mind that New Labour will continue and will continue well after I've gone. I mean I've absolutely no doubt about that. It's sometimes said that Gordon is, you know, he's not New Labour, he's old Labour, he's a roadblock to reform - it's complete nonsense, he is completely and totally on the same line as New Labour.

ANDREW MARR: He's not you, he has a -

TONY BLAIR: Yes, but that will probably be an advantage by the time he gets around to it -


TONY BLAIR: I mean it's - I mean that's good, I mean people want change but what they also want, and this is why the Tories are having to try and adjust is they want continuity with that.

ANDREW MARR: You've got a series of big reforms which we've talked about, which were in the manifesto. They are going to be on the statute book, or not, depending on those parliamentary battles ahead, by this time next year. What more have you got to do after that?

TONY BLAIR: Well it depends what stage the reform programme is at and what we're doing but I don't -

ANDREW MARR: And the second wave and the third wave ...

TONY BLAIR: Well I think that what there will be, because right at the end, after you've got this reform programme through, you'll have the next stages of it. For example, I think in education the really big issue for the future will be about, not just about how you improve education at school but how you improve adult skills, further education, where I think there are real issues to do with reform and change, and then there's a, there's a new agenda for that. Now, you know, that that's for the future.

ANDREW MARR: Is this an elegant, eloquent way of saying on and on and on?

TONY BLAIR: No, no, absolutely - it's not saying that at all, what it's saying is, that it's not when I depart the political scene New Labour ends. That's not what's going to happen.

There will then be a new leader, let's assume it's Gordon, who then takes it to a new level and a new stage - and that's the way it should be and if we're sensible about it - for example in health care, I think there's a whole series of issues to do with how people are treated in the modern world, the impact of genetics and so on - you know, life doesn't stop ... I mean you should never think you're indispensable to change, because you're not.

ANDREW MARR: There's always another challenge, of course.

TONY BLAIR: That's right.

ANDREW MARR: But there is a sort of argument or discussion going on inside your party which goes like this: with David Cameron there is probably a new, well there is a new political situation which has to be dealt with, you could deal with it by yourself carrying on almost all the way through this parliament, and then the change is made and it's a fresh leader and it's a new proposition to people or, some people would say - not very far removed from the Treasury - much better to get Gordon Brown in there early on to give him time, to settle down as a prime minister, so the country gets to know him as a prime minister, he sets out his own stall.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, but these arguments run on the whole time.

ANDREW MARR: I was just wondering which side you were on, that was all.

TONY BLAIR: Well, rather than getting into the umpteenth different way of avoiding answering that particular question - the important thing for both of us is to get on with the job And, you know, after all, if you look at what's happened in the past eight or nine years, you've got probably the strongest economy of any of the modern industrial countries over the past eight or nine years - I think it's ... the reason why the Tories are having to change their health policies, they can't seriously say the health service is not getting better, you've got the improvements in the schools, you've got a lot of action on crime and -


TONY BLAIR: - you know, you will then have to take it to another level.

ANDREW MARR: Well, sure, but there a lot of people in your party who don't want to take it to another level, who would say actually, if the Conservatives are moving a little bit towards us, this is a golden opportunity for us to move a bit more to the left, be more redistributive, be more traditionalist Labour - what would you say to people out there, potential future leaders, whoever it might be who think that?

TONY BLAIR: I'd say if you want the fastest route to opposition, that's the way to do it. Look, what we should be saying is it's great, New Labour ideas are in the ascendant, the other political parties are having to work out how they stand in relation to what we've done, what's therefore our position?

Our position is to hold absolutely firm to that New Labour centre ground and build on it so by the time the Conservative Party have caught up with the last bit of change we've made, we're already onto the next bit of change, and we're setting the agenda there.

ANDREW MARR: Is there a part of you which looks at some of the guys behind you on the Labour benches, and perhaps alongside you on the Labour benches, and thinks actually I am more different from these people than I am from someone like David Cameron?

TONY BLAIR: No there's not because, you see, the other thing, the other thing you've got to say is this, if a centre ground driven by the Conservatives would be driven to the right. A centre ground that is part of a progressive agenda, is always going to be moving in that progressive direction. So -

ANDREW MARR: To the left?

TONY BLAIR: Yeah. Look, if you take -

ANDREW MARR: So you would argue that the country, under you, is moving to the left?

TONY BLAIR: Well I, I use the term progressive about it -

ANDREW MARR: I know but your hand gesture suggested to the left.

TONY BLAIR: I thought that I was moving that way, actually.

ANDREW MARR: Ah, to the right.

TONY BLAIR: Well - I think we'll cut

ANDREW MARR: We'll rewind -

TONY BLAIR: No, in the end, if you look at what this government's done, a minimum wage, the biggest programme for the unemployed, New Deal; the biggest expansion of public spending in any of the major industrial countries.

Now, we have done that all at the same time as running a very strong economy, increasing the number of jobs, increasing living standards, we've tackled pensioner poverty and child poverty, but we've also made sure that we're introducing major market reforms into our public services. Now that to me - and I have got a strong position on defence, a strong position on law order - that to me is the right combination that keeps you in government. To throw that away is not very sensible but don't be under any doubt, if you've got a Conservative government it would be different.

ANDREW MARR: Are you absolutely clear that if it does go to Gordon Brown - the leadership - that all that is safe or do you think there is any case for the party having a contest, any case for the party looking to the next generation.

You yourself have singled out David Miliband, you've singled out Douglas Alexander as bright young guys coming up with their own views about where New Labour is going to develop?

TONY BLAIR: You've got lots of good young people coming up, but that's great, you've got a new team for the future and you've got your, you know, Andy Burnhams and James Purnell, Ed Balls, Ed Miliban, Pat McFadden whoever else -

ANDREW MARR: But not ...

TONY BLAIR: You know, you've got a whole, one of the great things about the Labour Party at the moment is you've got a very, very strong young generation on its way up.

ANDREW MARR: And no case to jump to that generation as the Conservatives have done?

TONY BLAIR: No because I think when you've been in government and you've got that weight and experience and strength and power there, you know, you can have the best combination, which is the experience, with the youthful team in support. And I think that's, you know a very, very strong case for Gordon.

And, you know, I mean I think Alan Greenspan, a short time ago, described him as a finance minister without peer in the western world - I mean it's a pretty good endorsement - and therefore I think what is, what is clear is that if we, if we're sensible, as a political party, and carry on learning the lessons of why we spent 18 years of opposition and now we've got three terms of government, if we're sensible about it we can move to the next level, the next stage, and be extremely successful. And that's what I want to see and I want, I don't want to turn what New Labour's achieved over to the Tories, I want it to carry on under Labour.

ANDREW MARR: What proportion of this Parliament do you continue to carry on serving as prime minister for?

TONY BLAIR: You know, I've gone through all those questions and answered them. I mean the main thing is to get on -

ANDREW MARR: You've gone through the questions with respect.

TONY BLAIR: Well I have actually, I mean I gave a whole series of answers and I -

ANDREW MARR: Yes, but -

TONY BLAIR: - I've changed those answers but -

ANDREW MARR: Can we expect you to be prime minister for most, the majority of the rest of this Parliament?

TONY BLAIR: Well, as I say, I've already made it clear. I made it clear at the election that I was there to serve the term and that's what I want to do. But, at the same time, I get fed up of ...

ANDREW MARR: I can understand that but you understand why people are interested?

TONY BLAIR: ... time and time again, the main thing actually - of course - but I think the main thing is to get on with the job and to do it well and as you rightly say, 2006 is a very critical year and it's an interesting time in British politics which is why I'm delighted to be part of it.

ANDREW MARR: And is there any, any possibility at all that you decide to stay on and fight another election?


ANDREW MARR: No circumstances whatever?

TONY BLAIR: No, because you, you, in the end it's a privilege to do this job but there's also a limit to, you know, I mean some people may well argue I've outstayed my welcome already but you don't want to take it too far.

ANDREW MARR: You don't, as Charles Kennedy reminded us. Prime Minister, thank you very much indeed for that.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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