9 Jul 2024

‘It’s about time we had a serious prime minister’, says former Tony Blair aide

Europe Editor and Presenter

Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and right-hand man during the ten years he was prime minister.

We spoke to him a little earlier about the challenges facing Sir Keir Starmer as he heads to his first NATO summit.

We began by asking how different his domestic challenges are to those that faced Tony Blair when he became PM.

Jonathan Powell: I think the problem is not the size of his majority, the problem is the problems left for him by the previous government. The fiscal problems, the problems of prisons, the problems in terms of how we are seen around the world. He’s really surrounded by problems. We had plenty of problems inherited from John Major, but nothing like this scale. So the problem for Keir Starmer is going to be – this is going to be blood, sweat and tears. It’s not sunny uplands. It’s going to be trying to put this country back on its feet, trying to make things work again. It’s going to be very, very difficult.

Matt Frei: And he has tried to manage expectations, but at the same time we’re dealing with an electorate that is upset and also possibly quite restless.

Jonathan Powell: It’s going to be a time where people project onto Keir Starmer all sorts of promises he didn’t actually make, he made a very modest series of promises. We also had very modest promises in our pledge card, but people projected onto Tony Blair all sorts of hopes and expectations, and eventually you get to the stage where people stop being disappointed, then start accusing you of betrayal. That is just the nature of democratic politics. But for the moment, he’s made, in my view, a very good start. And he’s demonstrated to people he’s serious about trying to change things. It’s about time we had a serious prime minister because we haven’t for a while.

Matt Frei: So Keir Starmer is heading to Washington. There’ll be the Nato summit tomorrow at a very important time for Nato, for Europe, because of the war in Ukraine. But of course, also, he’s going to meet President Biden in the White House. How different is the reality that he faces in the global arena to the one that you faced in 1997?

Jonathan Powell: This is Keir Starmer’s coming out party with the world leaders, very quickly into his administration. Tony Blair had a G7 summit quite quickly and he was about a month afterwards in Denver. I remember we chartered Concorde to go there, which turned out to be extremely uncomfortable and of course, couldn’t fly at supersonic speed over land. And since it was Denver, it’s rather a long journey. But he was welcomed by all the other leaders as a chance to start relationships. But Keir Starmer is being thrown in right at the deep end, because not only do you have the horrific attacks in Ukraine yesterday, which was what the summit’s supposed to be dealing with, but everyone will be looking at President Biden and his age and how he’s reacting to things. So Keir Starmer’s first meeting with the US president won’t be so much about that first meeting, it’s how President Biden himself performs.

Matt Frei: But you have one presidential candidate, the incumbent, who may not be the candidate and who may not be able to function if he wins. And you’ve got another candidate, the convicted felon, Donald Trump, who we know from his first experience in power was trouble, for Europe and the Brits as well, and might be trouble again, this time a lot worse.

Jonathan Powell: It is true that you’ve got real problems in Paris, you’ve got real problems with the government in Germany and now problems in Washington too. The UK, which has so long been sort of absent from international councils, is suddenly back and suddenly in an important place because it’s the one place with a stable government, with political capital and just starting off. So actually, Keir Starmer is quite well placed to take a leading role in all of this because everyone else has got really big problems.

Matt Frei: But we don’t have a gang anymore. We’re out of the EU. That makes a difference as well, doesn’t it?

Jonathan Powell: We are out of the EU. That is a big problem. It’s a big problem economically and it’s a big problem politically. But it does give the UK a chance to be that bridge across the Atlantic that Tony Blair always used to talk about.

Matt Frei: If it is President Donald Trump, what advice would you, if he asked you, give Keir Starmer about how to deal with him?

Jonathan Powell: I think David Lammy has taken a very sensible approach by trying to reach out to those around Donald Trump, JD Vance and others, to establish relationships in advance in case it is Trump. Because the UK will have to get on with the US, especially given that we’re outside the EU regardless of who’s leading it.

Matt Frei: Finally, and very briefly, I’m told by people around Donald Trump that he really likes the fact that it’s Sir Keir Starmer – that he’s got a knighthood.

Jonathan Powell: Maybe we should give Donald Trump a knighthood and that will do us some good.