Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A prime number

Tony Blair

Robert Hill, the author of ASCL's book Leadership that Lasts, spent the years 1997-2001 working in Downing Street as a special adviser. He recalls what it was like working for Tony Blair.

A whole mix of memories bubble to the surface when I look back at the five years I spent inside Number 10.

It was, as you would expect, extremely challenging. The Prime Minister worked hard. He was assiduous in dealing with his red boxes. But we were very conscious of the huge range of issues he had to manage and so there was a premium on providing him with briefings that summarised complex issues concisely, argued succinctly the case for and against a particular course of action and set out advice clearly.

Whenever there was a serious problem or media crisis he wanted the facts and he wanted them fast. He had an uncanny instinct for sensing when policies were getting bogged down or the implementation of an initiative was about to go pear-shaped.

He also saw us as his ears and eyes: talking and listening to stakeholders, exploring new and interesting ideas and appraising those who might have a good contribution to make to the government's agenda.

He expected us to keep abreast of what was happening in the world outside politics and feed back to him how frontline executives and staff were viewing the impact of government changes and programmes. And he looked to us to liaise with ministers and senior officials in departments and help resolve policy blockages or delivery problems.

The days were long. Evenings were for going through the vast volume of paper and emails that Whitehall generates. And when you did go home the Number 10 switchboard always knew where to find you! There were times when I felt that I needed every last drop of intelligence, stamina and application to provide the Prime Minister with the support and insight he required.

But it wasn't all work. Away days at Chequers involved five-a-side football as well as serious thinking and brainstorming. There was rarely a day when laughter was absent from the Prime Minister's den as he teased staff (or they teased him) or as he recalled lighter-hearted incidents from a visit or a meeting.

Tony Blair knew how to play hard as well as work hard. Tennis, a work-out in the gym, time with the family or relaxing at Chequers provided welcome relief from the rigours of office. He also made no apology for taking his holidays, as the media ridiculously seemed to resent. And you quickly learnt to take your break to coincide with when he was going to be away.

Life at Number 10 was also strangely secure. Politics is a notoriously insecure business. People can come and go as quickly as Premiership football managers. But I knew that on the issues on which I advised him the Prime Minister trusted my judgement.

He appreciated that inevitably mistakes would sometimes be made: the point was not to engage in a blame game but learn from them and quickly sort out any ensuing problems. I cannot recall a single occasion on which he lost his cool with me or others in the five years I spent with him, despite the remorseless pressure of the job.

There were times when life was frustrating. The Prime Minister was impatient to see faster progress in delivering his priorities. I am not sure (and perhaps it's as well he didn't) that he always appreciated the full implications of delivering complex policies - a consequence perhaps of Labour's 18 years in opposition which robbed Tony Blair of the experience of running a major department of state before becoming prime minister. But then again if your prime minister is not demanding then you almost certainly do not have the right person in the post!

And on some issues - as he showed with NHS waiting times, street crime and the response to foot and mouth disease - his mastery of the detail left senior officials and chief executives gasping.

It's ten years since I first walked though the shiny black door that is the iconic entrance to Number 10. So I'm hardly the most objective of observers about his legacy - history will be the judge of that. But, in language more usually used in the United States, it was an honour to serve him.


Robert Hill was a special adviser to Tony Blair from 1997-2001. From 2001 to late 2002 he acted as his political secretary and then served as Charles Clarke's special adviser in the Home Office and DfES. Now an independent consultant on public policy issues, Robert has worked on several projects with ASCL, including the current research on effective collaboration.

This article first appeared in the Municipal Journal in May.

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