Tony Blair torpedoed plans for an ambitious race equality strategy following the inquiry report into the racist killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, files show.
The landmark Macpherson study, published in February 1999, outlined wide-ranging proposals for reform after it found the Metropolitan Police investigation into Stephen’s 1993 murder failed in part due to “institutional racism”.
In response, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw, who commissioned the inquiry, wanted to publish a government proposal with a 10-year strategy for tackling racial inequality.
But the then Prime Minister was sceptical about the idea, fearing it could result in a “regulation nightmare”.
He wrote on one document: “We do not want to go OTT (over the top) on this.”
Elsewhere in the files he scrawled: “I really don’t want a regulation nightmare out of this.”
The proposal for a white paper was finally killed off at a meeting between Mr Blair and Mr Straw on March 18 1999.
“The Prime Minister said that he shared the Home Secretary’s political objectives and it was clear that the Government needed to have a clear and positive agenda for change,” the official note of the meeting stated.
“However, a white paper would offer too many hostages to fortune and the Government would find itself under pressure to include all sorts of measures that it would prefer to avoid.”
Instead, Mr Blair agreed that Mr Straw could publish a series of separate consultation papers responding to the main recommendations in Lord Macpherson’s report.
Papers also revealed that Mr Blair’s aides feared his New Labour government was losing “moral authority” after it was hit by a slew of “sleaze” allegations.
POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Documents show his advisers were so concerned they considered creating a “commissioner for ministerial ethics” in an attempt to restore public trust.
Within months of sweeping to power in the 1997 general election, the Government was hit by a series of damaging headlines regarding the conduct of ministers which threatened to take the shine of its victory.
They included the £650,000 refurbishment of the Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine’s official flat, a £1million donation from Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, and ministers taking their partners on official overseas visits.
In a note to the then Prime Minister dated February 17 1998, his chief of staff Jonathan Powell noted: “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’.”
In April, Mr Powell warned the PM: “We believe that we have a serious problem that the perception of sleaze has gone deep into the public consciousness and that only a fairly major step will begin to reverse the current climate.”
Anji Hunter, one of Mr Blair’s closest aides, said one of her contacts had warned the continuing controversies were damaging public perceptions of the Government.
“He understands entirely why TB is ‘Big Picture, not froth and tittle-tattle’, but we should not take our eyes off the sleaze factor,” she wrote.
“Says out there amongst his milieu we are losing moral authority by the second as partners, refurbishments, tax hypocrisy take hold.
“Feels we are letting it drift without doing anything about it.”