There’s more to Tony Blair’s baggage than Iraq. But if he really is ‘back’, he does have the power to alter the terms of the Brexit debate
‘Well, that went down like a lead balloon, darling,’ we can all imagine Cherie Blair, in one of her more waspish moods, telling her husband over the breakfast marmalade and hostile newspaper headlines that followed his latest foray into the politics of Brexit. Harsh, but fair. One upmarket columnist likened public reaction to any Tony Blair speech nowadays to a psychological Rorschach Test, designed to reveal whatever loathing, left, right or Blairite, many voters harbour towards the former prime minister and his well-documented career failures.
‘Are you willing to get seriously stuck into the fight again this time, despite all the poison, darling?’ would have been a more pertinent question for Mrs Blair to toss across the toast. It is the question for all of us. Is he just passing through, as he has done so often in the past globe-trotting decade, perma-tanned and increasingly shop–soiled, in transit between clients of varying quality and repute? Or is the talk of shrinking his business activities, donating £8 million from his own collection of fine old banknotes into the not-for-profit Tony Blair Institute (Donald Trump isn’t the only one with a brand), of launching ‘a new policy agenda for the centre ground’, is it actually real? It just might be. After all, 63 is the new 53 – though his voice seems weaker – and Wednesday’s spat with the Daily Mail over its coverage of the Guantanamo Bay suicide bomber’s compensation – ‘utter hypocrisy’, he rightly protested – seems to be a ‘no more Mr Nice Guy’ message to his Fleet Street tormentors.
If Blair was initially slow to understand the depth of media-fuelled public disdain – its breadth is a matter of conjecture – he now knows it as well as anyone else. His occasional interventions in domestic politics – his last version of the Bloomberg speech was in October – are peppered with rueful acknowledgement that he may not be the best person to be making the case he now seeks to make: essentially that the narrow victory – 51.89% to 48.11% is hardly a landslide – won by the Brexit insurgency on June 23 does not amount to the last word on the subject, or even the last insurgency. As he said in October it’s like agreeing to a house swap ‘without seeing the other house’. When the surveyor uncovers dry rot or a leaky roof, estate agents do lose sales.
Coming a few days before the Stoke and Copeland by-elections, the speech was duly misrepresented and denounced by the usual suspects, among them members of Jeremy Corbyn’s very shadowy shadow cabinet who would not have dared cheek Blair in his prime. Nor would the Mail’s editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, who was still finding his editorial feet as Blair-struck David English’s successor, when New Labour’s Fleet St charm offensive muzzled even the Mail’s attack dogs for a crucial (1994-98) breathing space. No longer. Saturday’s editorial attacking Blair (‘absolutely no self-knowledge and dripping with messianic madness’) was vintage Dacre – the touch of Evelyn Waugh’s messianic Lord Copper made it almost as comic. The attack dogs duly woofed.
From showbusiness comedian Russell Kane, whose mum has been telling him about the Iraq war, piled in. So did radio shock jock Iain Dale, Trump-pal Piers Morgan and Boris (what’s he doing nowadays?) Johnson. ‘Bare-faced effrontery,’ said Boris who has a half-completed PhD in the subject. It seems that the inventor of the ‘masochism strategy’ has not entirely lost his touch: confront your critics, preferably live on TV, in order to provoke engagement and debate. If ex-Remain’s Theresa May joined the turd-throwing, I missed it. She has more sense and decorum.
That strange, rarely remarked, phenomenon of our time, the Dacre-Corbyn axis, is one reason why Blair’s own freedom of movement – politically, not as a jobbing global fixer – has become so restricted. He is caught in cross fire from both sides. The Corbynistas need to denigrate Blair’s record as one of sustained betrayal (Gordon Brown’s very different political character is collateral damage) in order to justify their own vain and pious electoral ineptitude, something that not even a string of by-election triumphs would fundamentally change. Dacre’s inner voices constantly remind him that he must destroy the political reputation of a triple-election winner as thoroughly as an ISIS militant entrusted with minding a Palmyra temple. At least Dacre’s brutality makes tactical sense.
Though he did not put it so bluntly, the Dacre-Corbyn axis is also why Blair has felt compelled to re-enter the fray. He is promising that time and money to float a sustained campaign – Open Britain as ‘Continuity Remain’ – to better educate the pragmatic middle of the electorate, those whose tilt to Brexit was based on ‘imperfect knowledge’, not on ideology and belief.
Blair plans to expose the likely harsh realities of May’s ‘Brexit at any Cost’ strategy for leaving the EU which claims, as ex-home secretaries do, to prioritise border control above markets, regulation or irksome court judgments.
The ideologues, hard-nosed moneymen (who funded the DUP’s ‘dark money’ Brexit adverts in England?) mingling among the misty-eyed romantics, see the ‘low tax, light regulation, offshore free market hub’ as the desired model for Brexit Britain – not a last resort if all else fails. They must first shake off the constraints and obligations of EU membership as a necessary pre-condition to fulfilling that dream. Was it not Times columnist, Melanie Phillips, hyperbolic and romantic, who wrote ‘I’d rather be poor and free than rich and enslaved’? Not that Mel expects to be poor, of course. That an elderly freelance journalist might be poorer and more enslaved in her Brave New World never crosses her mind. Splitting the coalition which unites assorted ideologues with those pragmatically disaffected by immigration levels or ‘Brussels’ is Blair’s initial task. The disaffected did not vote to be poorer, let alone enslaved, they voted for what May calls a ‘fairer Britain’.
In countering the inevitability of Hard Brexit Plus ‘Chief Remoaner’ Blair (© R Murdoch) identifies ‘two major challenges’ and rightly so. One is the ‘media cartel on the right’ seeking to block anyone attempting to discuss terms as a ‘traitor or moaner’ and thus intimidating the broadcasters, notably the BBC.
Dacre’s Saturday editorial neatly illuminated precisely this point. Ridiculing Blair’s suggestion that the BBC is underplaying the dangers of Brexit, the editor’s stenographer typed ‘the corporation was admirably impartial during the referendum campaign but, traumatised by the result, has been making up for it since by championing the Remain cause’.
Do you remember the Mail or Sun, the Telegraph or Express, praising the BBC’s ‘admirable impartiality’ during the referendum campaign? Nor do I and nor does Professor Google. But that’s standard procedure. The Mail was also prominent in airing dodgy doctor, Andrew Wakefield’s, concerns about the triple MMR job, but slow to put its hands up – as one paper in South Wales did – when a measles outbreak inevitably followed a fall in MMR take-up. The tabloid caravan moves on, only sometimes pausing to bury its dead. And compared with its slovenly rivals the Mail is both scrupulous and brilliant. Now that Wakefield is back from Texas to tout his film Vaxxed the Mail averts its gaze, hoping everyone will forget its own role.
But complaining about the press is as pointless as complaining about the weather, as Enoch Powell, Brexit’s John the Baptist, once remarked. We need a boisterous press, even when it’s lazy and dishonest. Where society’s balance gets out of kilter is when countervailing forces fail to come into play. When Blair told his Bloomberg fan club that ‘the debilitation of the Labour party is the facilitator of Brexit’ he nailed a central problem of current domestic politics that goes far beyond even Brexit, the daunting ‘mono-purpose’ preoccupation of the May government.
Whatever Team Corbyn says or the number-crunchers claim after elections tests of varying relevance, Labour isn’t working and shows no signs of doing so. The downward drift of the opinion polls confirm what everyone, even Jeremy at three in the morning, knows. Corbyn’s rallies are like Blair’s at Bloomberg: a reaffirmation of belief among the faithful, but not yet a reaching out. It need not have been so, but Corbyn himself is a lifelong anti-European, forced to go through pro-Remain motions during the referendum (few noticed), his more able shadow colleagues also forced to compromise since their defeat.
They have voted for Article 50, so now have the Lords – despite face-saving amendments promised next week. Blair stands with Ken Clarke and few other MPs in refusing to back down.
We can all see the tactical imperative of compromise, but it is not proper opposition and Labour looks a sad, irrelevant spectacle on the defining issue of our time: 51.89% to 48.11% is a majority, but it is not a mandate for an undefined Hard Brexit, regardless of the pain it causes, just so Melanie Phillips can breathe free. Back in 2004 Blair was wrong in not imposing transitional restrictions on the EU’s new A10 immigrants, as France and Germany did, and he ducked the point at Bloomberg. But he is right that in a democracy people have the right to change their mind if the facts change.
But if the migrant surge from Poland and its neighbours – ‘it’s hard to compete with four blokes sleeping in the back of a van,’ a South Wales plumber told me soon after – was Blair’s biggest mistake (bigger than Iraq now that it has tipped the referendum vote towards Brexit), scarcely less painful – with hindsight – was his repeated failure to make the case for Europe in 1997-2007. Bloomberg-Plus, in the years when he carried all before him, might have reset reflex anti-Europeanism. He promised to do it, just as he rashly promised a referendum on the EU constitution before French voters aborted it.
But he repeatedly failed to risk valuable capital on an issue which did not much excite most voters (check the polls) compared with schools and hospitals. Just as problematical, it was also bound to enrage the tax-shy, oligarch-owned newspapers. In a small way he showed the same lack of courage in his famous valedictory speech on the ‘feral beast’ media, which routinely accuses the political class not just of incompetence – bad enough – but also of venality. Back in 2007 Alastair Campbell urged him finally to settle scores with the Mail. Blair opted instead to single out the Independent, the weakest, gentlest beast in the Fleet St pack, for excoriation. Pathetic. Is the long-postponed showdown with Dacre finally beginning?
Well, he now has a chance to make amends for past sins of omission and commission. He has consulted potential allies, from John Major to Nick Clegg and George Osborne. Gordon Brown too? Let’s hope so. But none of them can hold a candle to Blair when it comes to marshalling an argument or stirring a controversy that may just generate enough momentum to stop the Brexit bus – driven by the ideologues, says Blair – from taking us all, the EU 27 as well as Britain, over a nasty cliff.
Cameron apart, none of them have the same urgent need for public redemption either. If Blair is serious he will have to go on making the Bloomberg speech time and time again, before cynical or disengaged voters notice that he really is back, really has planted his standard in the centre ground to rally dormant forces in much-changed times. It is pretty shocking that no ambitious heavy hitter in their 40s and 50s (apparently Ed Balls really has retired to dance at 50) has credibly raised the fallen progressive flag since Corbynism and Brexit paved the way for Trumpismo.
The prize is not personal redemption for a tattered reputation, though that could happen too – politics is a long game – but altering the terms of the Brexit debate. Not necessarily to reverse the June 23 vote, that decision is made, but to temper romanticism and ignorance with enough realism to soften the negotiations ahead as the dangers become more apparent. As the FT’s youthful pundit, Janan Ganesh, witty and prematurely world-weary, put it in this week’s column: ‘Brexit is an idea whose only effective rebuttal is its own implementation.’
Blair’s friends assure me he has learned from past mistakes and has built a stronger team. Yes, he means it, he is in it for the long haul. Too old at 63, too discredited, too out of touch? We’ll see and so will he. ‘No more Mr Nice Guy’ stuff with the Mail is a good start, though he’d better put a guard on his family’s black bin bags. Would a potshot at Dacre’s EU farm and wind subsidies, a favourite Private Eye target, be beneath him? We’ll find out that too. As one old friend puts it: ‘he knows he’ll only have one shot.’ So he’d better make it a good one.
Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian