20 years ago today, New Labour marked their 100th day in office. In contrast to the current stagnation we are experiencing under Theresa May, Labour oversaw many radical changes within the first few months. But how have other recent prime ministers fared?
Tony Blair – May 2nd– August 8th 1997
On election night, Tony Blair took his first look at the document that Jonathan Powell had drafted, outlining the plan for Labour’s first 100 days in office. Until this point, Powell claims “Blair hadn’t wanted to look.”
After the heady heights of the landslide, Blair nervously asked ‘What do we do now?” People felt that Labour had entered office cautiously, conscious of public sceptism of previous Labour governments. On day two however, Gordon Brown made the Bank of England independent and after a month, a Gallup poll published in The Telegraph gave Blair an approval rating of 82% – the highest ever achieved by a British prime minister, and it is unlikely to be beaten.
The party marked the 100 days with an election broadcast, in which they outlined their achievements to date. They were:
- 101 Women MPs
- Bank of England Independence
- Ethical foreign policy
- $100m saved on NHS red tape.
- Trade Union ban lifted at GCHQ
- Ban on sale of Land Mines
- Nursery voucher scheme scrapped
- Total ban on hand guns
- Blair triumph in Amsterdam
- Sign up to the Social Chapter
- $1.3bn hospital building programme
- Healthy school meal for every child
- A voice for London
- VAT fuel cut by 5%
- NI Peace talks progress
- Extra $1bn for education
- Yes votes for devolution
Labour also pushed ahead with plans for the Millennium Dome. Ian Hargreaves, editor of The New Statesman, was surprised at the speed at which the government had worked, after “The specific promises before the election were really quite modest, and very few people were prepared for the blizzard of action that there has been.”
Labour’s lead in the polls remained at 34 % and with a positive media, the government maintained a long and protracted honeymoon. The Tories were locked in a stale leadership battle, devoid of fresh ideas. Big hitters Portillo and Heseltine were not involved, so John Redwood, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard fought it out with William Hague and Ken Clarke. It took the intervention of Thatcher to swing it for Hague and they looked like yesterdays men.
Blair on the other hand was seen as the great new hope for Europe and the World. In his first EU summit in Amsterdam, he wooed journalists by ‘getting on his bike’ for photos whilst The Economist claimed “the European media have treated him as a superstar, which makes him a man with whom every European politician wants to be seen.” One of Blair’s first acts was to rebuild Britain’s frayed relations with Europe and sign up to the Social Chapter.
Towards the end of the first 100 days, Blair marked his achievements with a glitzy number 10 bash, discussed further in Totally Cool: Pop, Politics and the revival of Britain. However on the same night, Labour lost in Uxbridge as the Tories celebrated their first parliamentary by-election triumph for over eight years. Then Blair was engulfed in a mini scandal over Lord Simon, the Minister for Competitiveness in Europe, and his £2 million of shares in BP.
Nevertheless, the public wanted to identify with the party. Interestingly, a Gallup poll showed that 53% of people now claimed to have voted for the party at the election, when in reality Labour’s share of the vote had only been 44%.
20 years on from the champagne supernova, it’s hard to find anyone who’ll admit to supporting Blair in that period.
Gordon Brown – 27th June – October 5th 2007
After 10 years as chancellor, Gordon Brown had been waiting anxiously for the keys to No 10. In comparison to the relative novices Blair and Cameron, Brown was the most adequately prepared PM since Jim Callaghan. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the immediate crises of his premiership.
Failed terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London were followed by sudden flooding across large parts of England. Then, just as he went away to enjoy a much earned holiday, foot-and-mouth disease, which had crippled Tony Blair before the 2001 election, returned. It provided the perfect opportunity for Brown to bookmark an end to the Blair years. In those first 100 days the party enjoyed a remarkable recovery in the public opinion polls, with a Tory 10-point lead reversed to level pegging after just two months.
Brown had been set a test for his first 100 days as prime minister, by his failed challenger John McDonnell. He asked Brown to commit to scraping Trident, scrapping tuition fees and ending privatisation within the education system. The article can be viewed in full in The real test for Brown. It would be 2015, with the election of Corbyn, for McDonnell to finally get his wish. For Brown, there was some movement on policy, with reviews of the cannabis law and the controversial “super-casinos”, which had been proposed under Blair.
Brown looked to portray himself as a more consensual politician, calling for a government “of all the talents” and making an offer to Paddy Ashdown to join. The Independent noted: “To have dissociated himself in 100 days from 10 years of government and to present himself as the candidate for change is an astonishing achievement.”
In the Evening Standard, Tom Bower, who had been a longstanding critic of Brown said he was: “Confounding his critics and defying his own character, Gordon Brown has, in fewer than 100 days, proved to be a vote-winner…The transformation is little less than astonishing. Doubters have been practically suffocated.”
It seemed inevitable that Brown would call an early election. On the eve of the party conference, The Sun released an Ipsos/Mori poll showing Labour with an eight-point lead on 42 points, the Conservatives on 34 and the Lib Dems down to 14. Philip Gould, Labour’s legendary polling guru, told Sky News: “I think we will win now, I think we would win later, I think we would win all the way through.” Commentators and strategists spoke of an air of calm emanating from Downing Street, exemplified in the early advertising slogan by Saatchi and Saatchi: “Not flash, just Gordon.”
Yet cracks were starting to appear towards the end of his first 100 days, as he hit a collision course with the electorate over the Lisbon treaty. Right-wing newspapers labelled Brown a “traitor” for refusing to allow the electorate a vote. I have written about this in greater detail here in The End of a Thousand Years of History – Labour’s Long March To Brexit and it certainly marked a point when Brown’s relationship with the media changed. The Sun accused Brown of “an act of betrayal which will haunt the prime minister for the rest of his political days”
Then at his first conference, Brown looked to play on fears about immigration by promising “British jobs for British workers”. This allowed the Tories to portray him as a political opportunist, as most people understood that it was not possible to achieve this, whilst still in the EU. This was followed by a trip to Iraq on the week of the Tory conference to undermine Cameron’s message and deliver a pre-election boost – by announcing that 1,000 British troops were being withdrawn from Iraq before Christmas. The public saw it as a piece of political opportunism and it backfired on him spectacularly, when he was dogged throughout with questions about budget cuts.
As the 100 days ended, the newspapers began to give the floundering Tory leader David Cameron some positive coverage of his conference speech. Sensing that it was the biggest speech of his life, Cameron came to the stage without notes, and challenged Brown to an early election: “Call that election. We will fight. Britain will win”. He contrasted the “modern” Tories with Labour’s “cynical… old politics.”
The Tories then pulled off a political masterstroke when George Osborne announced that the threshold for inheritance tax would rise from £300,000 to £1m if they won the next election. It seems surreal to think about the policy now, but at a time when the parties occupied a similar space politically, it was seen as a political game changer.
On the 100th day, a final decision was made on an election. Every public poll had said that Labour would win a clear majority. Yet Brown had seen some private polling from marginals that swayed him against an early election. He knew if he fought and lost seats, he’d be in Theresa May territory – the political equivalent of no mans land.
The following week Cameron destroyed Brown at PMQs: “The question is: can we believe anything the prime minister says?” To ecstatic Tory laughter, he added: “You are the first prime minister in history to flunk an election because you thought you were going to win it.”
He skilfully linked Brown’s flip flopping over the election, to his u-turn on the Lisbon treaty. And Labour never recovered.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg – May 12th to August 17th 2010
Reaching 100 days of the coalition came as a surprise to most political commentators who felt that it would have already ended by that stage. The Guardian noted that the “novelty factor” had already gone, and the partnership looked like a natural fit. Tory grandee Michael Portillo agreed, suggesting that they fight the next election as “the Coalition” again. Even the Guardian noted that “David Cameron has made a great personal start in the job of prime minister.”
He hit the ground running with a bold Queen’s Speech on May 25, which he described as a “radical programme for a radical government”. It contained 23 bills on school reform, welfare and the police. Top of the coalition’s list was reducing the deficit. And no one could quite believe how easily the Lib Dems signed up to it.
Osborne ushered in the deepest and fastest cuts to public spending for a generation, warning the country that it was on the ‘road to ruin’ thanks to Labour. He increased VAT from 17.5% to 20% and cut welfare spending dramatically. Welfare was overhauled with IDS overseeing an increase in retirement age to 66; an overhaul of the tax credits system, the proposal for universal credit, moving 500,000 families off the welfare books; means-testing child benefit; ending life time council tenancies; ending the allocation of council homes in ‘expensive areas’; tackling the £1.5 billion of benefit fraud and the introduction of the much despised ‘Bedroom Tax’
Tax credits were cut for families earning more than £40,000 a year – and there was a two year pay freeze for public servants paid more than £21,000. Osborne also announced real terms cuts across of 25% over for every department over four years – except health and foreign aid.
As for the future prime minister, The Telegraph was pleased with Theresa May’s early performance. At the home office, she successfully distanced herself from Labour:
“She swiftly overturned Labour measures on data collection and surveillance; abolished ID cards, stopped retention of DNA samples for children; put restrictions on the use of CCTV cameras; scrapped anti-social behaviour orders; announced the adjournment of the deportation to the USA of alleged computer hacker Gary McKinnon; suspended the controversial criminal vetting scheme for those working with children; abolished police authorities in favour of elected police and crime commissioners and unveiled plans for more civilian reservists. She also announced a review of “control orders”, including the 28-day limit on detaining terrorist suspects without charge.”
Her approach pleased Shami Chakrabarti, now a Labour peer but then head of pressure group Liberty, who claimed that civil liberties are now “the noble glue” holding together the coalition. On top of all this, Andrew Lansley embarked on the largest re-organisation of the NHS since it was founded under Labour, 65 years previous.
As they approached their 100th day in office, an opinion poll found 57 % of people found the coalition ‘disappointing’. However, Labour could not capitalise on this, as they were in the middle of a lengthy and tedious leadership battle. Their leaderless period had allowed the Tories to present the economy as worse than they had forecast, and Nick Clegg warned the public of deeper cuts to come:
“The depth of the economic difficulties we have inherited from Labour means there are no short-term fixes. The size of the deficit means that whichever party or parties had come into government would have to face short-term unpopularity in order to restore long-term success to our economy. Reducing public spending has already led to some controversial decisions and, with the autumn spending review approaching, we are on the brink of many more.”
He wasn’t wrong was he?
For further reading, check out – https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/aug/17/100-facts-about-coalitions-first-100-days
Theresa May – July 13th – October 21st
Brexit means er….Brexit.