Some of Tony Blair’s closest aides warned that he needed to improve his performance at the “theatre” of PMQs after a series of poor showings against opposition leader William Hague, according to newly released Downing Street files.
In a confidential personal memo to Blair, dated 23 February 2000, his chief of staff Jonathan Powell, private secretary Clare Sumner, and the head of No.10’s Research and Information Office Bill Bush detailed their concerns.
The memo, which was accompanied by a video of Blair’s “best and worst” performances, read: “Although PMQs is a pain in the neck it is important and worth taking seriously. We think you should think of a fresh approach from next week so we can get back on top.”
It said: “Much of the recent poor performance has been because you are tired and because it has been difficult to get up much enthusiasm for the charade.”
Blair was accused of approaching “a political pantomime as if it were a genuine question and answers session.”
The memo added: “You adopt a fact-based approach instead of a message-based approach. PMQs is an opportunity to get across messages, not to answer factual questions.”
The prime minister can look “evasive” and be “glib” in his answers, according to the memo.
It includes a copy of a note that had been sent by David Miliband, head of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit, to Powell the day before.
“TB feels to me like a student trying to cram facts on the morning of the exam when in fact he needs to think more clearly about what he wants to say and how he is going to say it,” Miliband said.
He described how Blair had been “struggling” and leaving aides “scratching their heads.”
Blair needed to “be much less bored with our message and core points” and “set a stronger example.”
Miliband added: “When Hague goes into rhetorical orbit about ‘all mouth and no delivery’ TB should pick up on delivery, and ram it back down his throat.”
Blair’s officials came up with a series of suggestions for the prime minister.
These included producing a document with the “three messages you want to get across on a particular day” which he would need to repeat “until you are heartily sick of them.”
They also suggest the prime minister spend half an hour before PMQs rehearsing his responses with Alastair Campbell and other officials “to practice for the theatre of the event.”
A handwritten note by Blair responding to the feedback said: “This is fine, up to a point….but I don’t think we should be panicking about this or thinking PMQs is ever going to be other than something to endure. And it is in my view, the worst forum in which to appear.”
The documents, released by the Cabinet Office to the National Archives, became available last week as part of the transition from the 30-year rule to the 20-year rule by 2023.