TONY Blair’s aides feared he was losing “moral authority” in a welter of sleaze scandals within months of New Labour coming to power, National Archive files reveal.
The then Labour Prime Minister’s advisers were so concerned they considered creating a “commissioner for ministerial ethics” in a bid to restore public trust in the government.
Mr Blair’s administration was beset by damaging headlines about ministerial conduct in the months after sweeping to power in 1997.
They included ministers taking their partners on official overseas visits, Lord Chancellor Lord Derry Irvine’s £650,000 refurbishment of his flat, and a previously secret £1 million donation from Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone being linked to the sport being exempted from a tobacco sponsorship ban.
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 official apartment in the Palace of Westminster – including £59,000 for wallpaper – as a “noble cause”.
In a note dated February 17, 1998, Mr Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell said: “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 one of her contacts had warned that the 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.”
The charge of lacking moral authority is the same one the current Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, now levels a Boris Johnson, who is also in trouble over a flat makeover with designer wallpaper.
In April 1998, Mr Powell told 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 revamped flat, the lord chancellor should “adopt a low profile” until he was rehabilitated.
“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. One of our major problems is the public perception that you are prepared to tolerate such abuses.”