There have been little snippets of stories over the past few months which harken back to a different age in politics.
Between the EU Referendum, the never-ending Labour leadership contest, the resignation of a Prime Minister and the subsequent topsy-turvy Conservative leadership contest, this summer was a rollercoaster of politics and unheaval. You might have been forgiven for missing a little story from one Mr Tony Blair, a former Prime Minister of the UK.
In August, Mr Blair admitted that his brand of politics may have “had its day” when involved in a discussion about the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Sen Bernie Sanders in the US as apparent new standard-bearers of the left. Mr Blair said politicians must offer solutions to people’s concerns rather than just “riding the anger”. He offered the success of Hillary Clinton in holding off the insurgent Mr Sanders to win the Democratic presidential nomination as evidence that centrist solutions to concerns raised by globalisation were perhaps still possible.
Speaking to Politico, Mr Blair said:
“It’s a very open question whether the type of politics I represent really has had its day or not…
“There were times when I was growing up in politics and when I was prime minister when I had complete confidence in my own ability, just as a professional, to predict the course of politics. The last few years have caused me to question [that].
“I’m re-evaluating the whole time but I haven’t come to the conclusion that centrist politics is wrong or dead…I think it’s very much alive but it needs to be given a renewal, a revival, and a muscularity which it presently lacks.”
And so Mr Blair edged his way back into the news, after a brief moment in the spotlight campaigning in the EU Referendum. But Brexit was in the headlines, with business fears and queries about the triggering of Art 50, and so Mr Blair’s comments were lost in news. Moreover, it was noted that this was the first time Mr Blair had been interviewed and reported on since the publication of the Chilcott Report.
Then came September. Mr Blair announced he was closing down the majority of his commercial business ventures, declaring that 80% of his time would be taken up with not-for-profit work, which will also benefit from the “substantial financial reserves” from the closing firms.
Over nine years Mr Blair and his staff established a group of organisations which employed around 200 people and working in more than 20 different countries round the world. In September, an email was sent around to staff explaining he would close Tony Blair Associates because he wanted to “expand our activities and bring everything under one roof”. Associated companies Windrush and Firerush were also be wound up, although Mr Blair said he would retain a “small number of consultancies”.
Again, nothing too much was made from this story. All this story seemed to generate were comments, especially on social media, about Mr Blair’s work since he had left office. Mr Blair was reported to have made millions advising foreign governments, including Kazakhstan and Serbia, as well as multinational companies. He has also been subject to criticism and query alike for the amount of income received from his business ventures over the years.
Fast forward to the start of October. Mr Blair was back in the headlines (or headlights?) once more, and suddenly the steady stream of news came together.
Tony Blair indicated that he was preparing to return to UK politics seemingly in an effort to prevent the “tragedy” of Britain becoming a “one-party state”. The former Prime Minister warned that the rise of the hard-Left in Labour means that “the centre ground is in retreat” as he urged moderate politicians to “rise to the challenge”.
Asked in an interview with Esquire magazine if he is planning to return to British politics, he said:
“There’s a limit to what I want to say about my own position at this moment. All I can say is that this is where politics is at.
“Do I feel strongly about it? Yes, I do. Am I very motivated by that? Yes. Where do I go from here? What exactly do I do? That’s an open question.”
He Who Won three elections as Prime Minister after helping to transform Labour in the 1990s then accused Jeremy Corbyn of taking the Labour Party “back to the Sixties”. He warning that Mr Corbyn’s views are “very, very remote from the way that the broad mass of people really think”. He did also admit that he had deliberately chosen not to intervene in the Labour leadership race because he was concerned it would damage the campaign of Owen Smith, the rival for the Labour leadership.
Interestingly, after criticising Mr Corbyn, Mr Blair sought to claim that “this is not about Jeremy Corbyn” but rather it was a case of two different cultures attempting to co-exist within the same political party. Mr Blair give his explanation behind the two cultures (currently at war) within the Labour party. He explained that one of the cultures was the culture of the Labour Party as “a party of government”. He submitted that this was why the Labour party had been formed: in order to win representation in Parliament, and ultimately to influence and to be the government of the country. The other culture, Mr Balir said, was the ultra-Left, which “believes that the action on the street is as important as the action in Parliament”. It was that culture which had taken the leadership of the Labour Party under the leadership of Mr Corbyn. Mr Blair was evidently suggesting the two cultures are different in aim and method, and could not be reconciled.He described this as a “huge problem” because:
“…they live in a world that is very, very remote from the way that broad mass of people really think.
“The reason why the position of these guys is not one that will appeal to an electorate is not because they’re too Left, or because they’re too principled. It’s because they’re too wrong.
“The reason their policies shouldn’t be supported isn’t because they’re wildly radical, it’s because they’re not. They don’t work. They’re actually a form of conservatism. This is the point about them. What they are offering is a mixture of fantasy and error.”
This was a cause for concern, given that more than ever there was a vital need for an united Labour Party to serve as a true Opposition to the UK Government. He said:
“In the UK at the moment you’ve got a one party state. When you put it all together [taking into account that the Conservative leader and UK Prime Minister Theresa May was not elected], there’s something seriously wrong.
“Frankly, it’s a tragedy for British politics if the choice before the country is a Conservative government going for a hard Brexit and an ultra-left Labour Party that believes in a set of policies that takes us back to the Sixties.”
After the interview was published, and the media (and Twitter users) indulged in endless speculation as to the return of Mr Blair, a spokeperson for Mr Blair appeared. He said Mr Blair would not be returning to frontline politics. Indeed, the former Prime Minister merely wanted “to play a part in the debate because the true centre ground is vacant”. So that’s all right then. Mr Blair had voiced his belief that the centre ground was “in retreat”. This was a challenge which we must rise to meet.
And of course, the Blair Return does not end there. For recently Mr Blair was at pains to say that his return to politics would be strictly behind the scenes, and not on the frontline. The former prime Minister ruled out frontline politics because of his belief that there were parts of the media which would ‘move to destroy mode’.
In an interview with the New Statesman (tellingly entitled ‘Unfinished Business’), he said:
“I’m dismayed by the state of Western politics, but also incredibly motivated by it. I think, in Britain today, you’ve got millions of effectively politically homeless people.
“…I can’t come into frontline politics. There’s just too much hostility, and also there are elements of the media who would literally move to destroy mode if I tried to do that.”
Mr Blair said that such is his dismay by the current state of Western politics that he intends to play a significant role behind the scenes in shaping the political landscape. He said he will work to revive the ‘progressive centre or centre left’.
Mr Blair, who has consistently made clear his desire for Britain to keep its options open in relation to Brexit, said the process can be brought to a halt. (But that’s another post fo another time.)
Whilst he said he thought Labour had been ‘captured’ by the far left, he was sure to firmly deny he described Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘nutter’. (It had been suggested that Mr Blair had described the current Labour leader in such a manner).
I found the New Statesman interview to be interesting and revealing. I feel that Mr Blair knows, especially after the mauling he received in the Chilcott Report, that generally neither the British public nor Parliament wants him back. Mr Blir soared such dizzy heights of populrity in his hey-day that it was only ever inevitable he would plummet.He might know this.But I feel that he also believes there is some place for him in UK politics today.Perhaps he feels that Labour would gladly welcome him back, given his impressive election record, at a time when Labour is regularly defeated in the polls when compared to the Conservative Government.
But Labour is not the same party Mr Blair remembers leading. He himself has acknowledged there is a clash of cultures within the party. Moreover, grassroots activists are also markedly more left wing than he and many of the PLP. These grassroots activists will not be eager to welcome him back with open arms.
Brexit is the excuse Mr Blair is using to re-enter the political arena, frontline politics or not. The question is: will this end in a case of Shakespearian proportions, with Mr Blair exiting stage (ultra) left? We must wait and see how the next few months roll out. But I am sure we shall have another newstory involving the former Prime Ministe by Christmas.