Politicians should stand up to members of the public who brand them elitist because they argue for a second Brexit vote, Tony Blair has said.
The former prime minister compared voters who say MPs should stop arguing about Brexit and ‘just get on with it’ to football fans berating their team’s manager for his tactics.
Blair – a vocal advocate of the UK remaining in the EU – also called on politicians to stand firmly against those threatening violence on the streets if Brexit is not delivered as they wish.
And he called on businesses to speak out clearly on the damage which they expect Brexit to do to the economy.
Speaking at the launch of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer in London’s Mayfair, Blair said that declining trust in mainstream politics and media had led angry voters to gravitate towards simplistic answers from populists on the right and left.
He said there was a need for a ‘muscular centre-ground’ to provide evidence-based answers to issues such as immigration and the loss of jobs to robots on which populists thrive. But he shied away from saying whether this would require a new centre party, saying only: ‘My hope is that my party comes back to a centre-left position.’
Blair recalled an encounter with a member of the public in which he tried to explain details of the working of the EU’s single market and customs union which made him oppose Brexit, only to receive the reply: ‘You’re just trying to say to me that you know far more about this than I do.’
‘I was prime minister for 10 years,’ said Mr Blair. ‘I want to say to people, I follow Newcastle United, if a game is on the TV I will watch it, but I know that Rafa Benítez has forgotten more about football in one day than I will ever know.
‘It’s not because he is smarter than me – though he probably is smarter than me – it’s because that’s what he spends his life doing.
‘You send people to Parliament and that’s their day job. It’s not your day job. So if they study the detail and say this is a bad idea, they are not squabbling children, they are doing what you sent them to Parliament to do.
‘If you explain that to people they regard this as the elite fighting back. It’s absurd. We have got to have politicians who stand up and say ‘No, that is not a sensible way of looking at this’.’
Asked whether he was concerned about civil unrest if Brexit does not go ahead, Blair said: ‘If people are going to threaten violence you take a pretty strong line on that.
‘This ‘gilets jaunes’ politics – let them stand for election and then if they win we will take them seriously.
‘Why should you take them seriously because they put a brick through a shop window? We need politicians who are strong enough to stand up and say this.’