Labour, sleaze & ‘Operation Humility’: Tony Blair’s closest aides wanted to mount a humiliating campaign amid concerns that the Government might lose its’moral authority.

  • Aids considered creating ‘commissioner for ministerial ethics’ to restore trust
  • After a series of negative headlines about ministerial conduct, it was finally adopted.
  • This included £1million donation from then Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone
  • Jonathan Powell, the chief of staff to Blair, suggested Operation Humility.

Tony Blair’s aides urged an ‘Operation Humility’ campaign as his government became mired in sleaze allegations.

Officials feared New Labour was losing ‘moral authority’ after transgressions by ministers.

Papers released by the National Archives show his advisers were so concerned they considered creating a ‘commissioner for ministerial ethics’ to restore public trust.

The government received a series negative headlines about the ministerial conduct months after it won the 1997 general elections. 

They included the £650,000 refurbishment of the Lord Chancellor, Lord (Derry) Irvine’s official flat, a £1million donation from Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, and ministers taking their partners on official overseas visits.

Lord Irvine, Mr Blair’s former master when he was a trainee barrister, particularly infuriated opposition MPs when he defended the restoration of his apartment in the Palace of Westminster – including £59,000 for wallpaper – as a ‘noble cause’. 

In a 1998 note to Mr Blair, his chief of staff Jonathan Powell said: ‘We have tried to think of possible initiatives that would get us out of the mess but all of them have pretty substantial downsides.

‘We could mount “operation humility”. You could say tomorrow that it was a mistake and you’re ensuring it won’t happen again (but where does that leave Derry?).

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking during a media conference at Chequers in May 1998

Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom speaking at a Chequers media conference in May 1998

‘Derry could go up and do interviews saying that he is sorry (but he is not very good at that).’

In April Mr Powell told Mr Blair that he and senior aides were working on a ‘counter sleaze and perks strategy’. 

‘We should look at the concept of a commissioner for ministerial ethics, but we are worried we may be creating a rod for our own backs,’ he wrote.

‘One of our major problems is the public perception that you are prepared to tolerate such abuses.’

Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown wanted to redesign the Commons chamber into a hemisphere as a symbol of his party’s joint reform agenda with New Labour. 

He was keen to expand co-operation between the two parties – dubbed ‘The Project’ – following Mr Blair’s 1997 election victory.

Reshaping the chamber as a hemisphere would recognise the new culture of ‘consultation, pluralism, debate’ which they hoped to inaugurate, he wrote to Mr Blair.

The idea was not met with enthusiasm by No 10. Jonathan Powell wrote to Mr Blair: ‘I can’t believe he has proposed a hemispherical Commons. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this project?’