No one sitting outside the innocuous cafe where I enjoyed a galão with James Plaskitt could have imagined my interviewee once walked the corridors of Westminster, stood at the House of Commons dispatch box and was at the heart of the Blair government.
When I meet James Plaskitt, he has just managed to get back to Lagos before lockdown, albeit after a complicated series of COVID-19 tests. Having sold his house in Leamington Spa, he has realised a long-held dream of moving permanently to Portugal, after owning an apartment here for many years, and already becoming a resident.
His journey into politics was accidental. After studying PPE at University College, Oxford he gained an MA, graduating in 1976. He subsequently took an MPhil in Politics before taking up a lectureship at University College until 1979.
“My first interest in politics was as a subject to study,” he tells me. “Then I taught American politics, but when I was in my twenties someone suggested I stood for the local council. I thought it sounded interesting and I said I would do it for a term just to help out. I did stand and got elected and ended up leading that council, and by then, I had the bug.”
As Labour was swept to power in the 1997 general election landslide, Plaskitt was elected MP for the previously Conservative constituency of Warwick and Leamington, beating the incumbent Dudley Smith into second place. He became a backbencher in the new Blair government. How did it feel?
“It was one of those moments I think I will always remember. I had been active in Labour politics for decades before, but for most of it we had been in opposition. I had been a council leader, for example, during the Thatcher years and it had frankly been a battle all that time.
It felt like an enormous relief to have a very different type of government with different priorities, voted in with such a convincing mandate. It was a time of great optimism as I think it always is when a country makes a big political change. I know Tony Blair was worried that governments don't always achieve everything people want them to. The biggest hope from us was that we would do something to fix public services. Local government and the health service were struggling from underfunding, schools were just scraping by and didn't have enough money, social services were creaking. People didn't expect us to turn the taps on and spend, spend, spend, but we had a priority which said we would start investing sensibly.”
James fervently believes the government delivered on their election promise to fix the health service’s biggest problems. “We certainly reduced waiting times in the NHS. In my constituency, there were 40 schools and I visited every one on a regular cycle so that I could see the changes over the years. They had better programmes, better equipment, the buildings were revamped, they were palpably better.”
After the general election in May 2005, he was appointed a junior minister in the Department for Work and Pensions. “Being a backbencher and being a minister are two radically different experiences. As a backbencher, you don't always get called to speak; often there is no time and you are limited to five minutes. You want to ask a question at Prime Minister’s Questions, but you don't always get called. On the other hand, as a minister, you are at the dispatch box, you have the whole of the House of Commons coming at you, sometimes your own side trying to ask you questions and catch you out and hold you to account, which they should do. You have to be on your toes, but I used to enjoy ministerial questions. I used to get briefed up to the eyeballs. I found it a good intellectual challenge.”
I am keen to know how well he knew Tony Blair and what secrets he can divulge! “After I was elected as an MP in 1997, I got to know Tony Blair very well. He came to do campaigns in my constituency where I had various meetings with him over issues in the constituency which he helped me resolve. Once he appointed me a minister, I was on committees that Tony chaired, so I worked with him a lot.”
An indication of Blair's leadership qualities is James's high praise of his former boss. He tells me he was brilliant at quickly identifying the core of the problem and what you have to do to fix it. “I remember being in cabinet committees, which he presided over, and his approach was always the same. 'Right guys, tell me what the problem is, spell it out, put it all on the table.' Then he would reflect on it and say, 'OK, this is what we need to do. Do it in this order, off you go, do it and come back and tell me how you are getting on.' There was absolute clarity of analysis and I loved that. It was a great asset in a PM and certainly not what we have got at the moment.”
James feels that a testament to Blair's talents is the Blair Foundation. “If you look at his research documents and the policy recommendations, as far as I can see, they are all spot on. I understand that quietly the government has been talking to him about how to handle the COVID crisis.”
I ask him if he believes in the mythical 'deal of succession' between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. “Well, we never knew the truth about that. I lived with the drama between the two of them, but it's all speculation. I did witness the transition when there was a very uncomfortable period in 2007 when the pressure was mounting on Tony Blair to go and I didn't like that period at all. All sorts of silly manoeuvring was going on and lots of 'briefing-offs'. I have always hated that side of politics and it wasn't pleasant. I could see the two camps manoeuvring: Tony still trying to run the government and keep things on track with Gordon desperate to take over. And it was an unpleasant atmosphere.”
James did not think so highly of Gordon Brown as he did of Tony Blair, “He was a very different character, not so easy to get on with. At least I found it that way, when did have to deal with him. Tony was very relaxed, approachable and laid back. Gordon was a very different sort of person. Very intelligent and able but not so easy to get on with.”
So did he see sparks fly between Number 10 and 11 in the dying moments of the Blair era? “As far as I could tell, there was still a perfectly functioning relationship between Number 10 and the chancellery. For example, they were dealing with issues such as whether to join the euro at the time and, from as far as I could see, they were working together. The government was functioning, but it was the people behind them in their camps who were trying to do briefings and I said to both of them, 'You should not be doing this. The public expects us to behave better than this and you are better than this.' But there was a sense of expectation from those on the Brown side that it was now their turn, could you please get on with it. It was all unnecessary, the public didn’t like it and most of those in government didn’t like it.
“It was an uncomfortable episode in what was otherwise, as far as I could tell, I thought quite a good government in terms of domestic agenda. It was a government doing what it had promised to do.”
As Minister of the Department of Work and Pensions, James had responsibility for the Child Support Agency, which he describes as “a very troubled organisation”. On becoming an MP, he discovered that about a third of his caseload for his constituents involved child support. “So I found myself dealing with hundreds of cases which proved to me that this agency really wasn't working. Then, low and behold, I was made the minister in charge of it, so I thought 'right, I had better sort this out’. I tried to simplify all the rules for assessment. When I came in, I found about 100 variables for working out an assessment; I got that down to 12 in a big reform. I tightened the sanctions on parents that did not pay, meaning they could have their driving licence or passport taken away. I believed it was completely unacceptable that a parent could walk away from responsibility for a child. I did those reforms 13 years ago and I think broadly they worked.”
James also had responsibility for two big pension reforms, which he was trying to get through parliament when all the “ridiculous conflict” between the Blair and Brown camps was playing out.
“I introduced stakeholder pensions, an example of a long-term reform which has paid off. There are now today tens of millions of Britons joined up to a pension scheme that otherwise would not have been. They are going to be better off in retirement in 10 or 20 years’ time than they would have been had we not made that change. While all that noise on the surface was going on, we were still doing really important things at ground level which have all stood the test of time, including that one.”
Slightly more controversially, James changed the qualification age at which people draw the state pension, but his motivation was just plain maths. “The Civil servants presented me with the budget forecast for the cost of paying state pension and if we made no changes it was clearly unaffordable. We had to bite the bullet and say, 'Well, what do we do? We don’t want the system to fall over.’ The only logical thing to do was defer the retirement age gradually, so that is what we did.” In doing this, he took one for the team! He also had to wait until he was almost 66 to receive the state pension.
Maybe it's not fair to ask a former Labour MP his opinion of the new Conservative government, but I am intrigued to get his take on Boris Johnson, who is arguably the first charismatic leader to occupy Number 10 since Tony Blair.
“I feel depressed. Party politics aside, I think the country has poor leadership at the moment. I don't see any proper analysis going on of the issues that the country faces. I don't see strategic thinking. I just see day-to-day crisis management and it's not how you should govern a country. Yes, the health thing is an unprecedented crisis and a challenge to any government. But there are governments around the world that are coping with it. It doesn't have to be this constant chop and change impression of 'we don't know what we are doing'. It shows the poor quality of leadership material that the government has. It's sad looking back from 1500 miles away and observing it and talking to people about it in the UK. They are depressed about it as well.”
In James's opinion, the current government has committed two cardinal political errors. One is over-promising and under-delivering as you rapidly lose public confidence and then nothing you say has any impact. “They have done that time and time again. It is a basic error and I am astonished that they keep making it.”
Secondly, he believes that government messaging has to be clear and consistent and the current government has made the mistake of constantly changing the message and confusing the public. “They have ended up in a situation where the public, on the whole, don’t really believe what the government says as they don’t deliver on it. And they don't understand what the government says as they keep changing the message.”
Well, I did ask! So given his condemnation of the current government did he expect Labour's crushing defeat in the last election?
“Yes, I did. One person I would include in the list of poor politicians not up to the scale of the challenge is Jeremy Corbyn. The party under his leadership monumentally failed, in my view, to be relevant to the country's challenges at the time. Labour was unelectable and Corbyn made it unelectable and that was a painful experience for me, having spent over 50 years as a member of the party. I had never seen it so irrelevant as during his time. At a time when the country was crying out for people who had a strong and intelligent grasp of the situation and foresight and vision about what could be done. He was just a politician from a completely different era, on a completely different page and was just making my party irrelevant and it was horrible.”
Does James feel the new opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer is electable? “Yes, I think he is. There is a huge amount of work to be done, but he is starting to do it. I am hopeful. I don't know him but from what I see and hear I am much more hopeful that he will pull the party back to a point of relevance and we will be much more electable when the next election comes around.”
Make sure you don't miss Part 2 of this interview in the April edition when James describes his face-to-face meeting with Tony Blair when he tried to persuade the PM not to invade Iraq.