Blair, the Brexit saviour?

Whither Tony Blair?

I wrote a blog post last year about the former UK Prime Minister’s hint at returning to the UK political scene. Mr Blair was at pains then 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 the UK to keep its options open in relation to Brexit, said the process can be brought to a halt.

Mr Blair said the UK’s exit from the European Union might be stopped if voters decide the pain of leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc outweighs the benefits of leaving. Mr Blair, who is pro-European, compared Brexit to “agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house” and said access to the EU single market would define Brexit.

He told The New Statesman:

“[Brexit] can be stopped if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up,

“I’m not saying it will [be stopped], by the way, but it could.

“I’m just saying, until you see what it means, how do you know?”

He duly added that despite previously speculation, he would not consider returning to UK politics, given the hostility towards him.

But as we tiptoe ever closer to the promised date of the official invoking of Art 50, Mr Blair does not appear to have made any move to re-enter the political arena – even from behind the scenes, given his comments on the issue – and become the UK’s Brexit saviour.

In October last year, the former Prime Minister submitted that the UK should keep “its options open” over Brexit. He described the referendum outcome as a “catastrophe”, and it would be vital to consider the “real-life implications” of the vote.

Mr Blair said he accepted the verdict of the referendum, but recommended looking again at Brexit when “we have a clear sense of where we’re going”. He also added that a second referendum should not be ruled out.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Mr Blair argued that it was important that the views of the “16 million” people who had backed remaining in the EU should not be ignored.

He added:

“If it becomes clear that this is either a deal that doesn’t make it worth our while leaving, or alternatively a deal that’s going to be so serious in its implications people may decide they don’t want to go, there’s got to be some way, either through Parliament, or an election, or possibly through another referendum, in which people express their view.”

But he said the vote for Brexit could not be changed “unless it becomes clear that the British people have had a change of mind”.

Downing Street, however, swiftly issued a statement to say it was “absolutely committed” to seeing Brexit through.

Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly said that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she will trigger the formal divorce negotiations by the end of March. Whilst she waxes lyrical about her vision for a “red, white and blue Brexit” (Lord save us), the Prime Minister is acutely aware she is awaiting the judgment of the UK Supreme Court regarding the UK Government’s appeal of the High Court ruling which forces her to seek the approval of the UK Parliament.

Mr Blair said of the Prime Minister:

“She’s a very solid, sensible person but she’s delivering Brexit. And she has to deliver it.

“Otherwise she will lose the support of that very strong right-wing media. And they’ll open up a rift in the Tory party again.”

Last year, Mr Blair had given an interview in the New European newspaper in which he said those who believed in the EU “have to recognise we’re the insurgents now”. He also argued that “we have to build the capability to mobilise and to organise. We have to prise apart the alliance which gave us Brexit.”

Whither Mr Blair now? Why the silence, after the rousing rhetoric and stirring statements?

He had warned of the talks with the EU whilst speaking on the radio:

“I’m convinced that it’s going to be very, very tough. We have to understand we are not going to be conducting these negotiations with a group of European businessmen who might well decide that they want maximum access to the UK…

“The people we are going to be conducting these negotiations with are the political leaders of the European Union and their parliaments.

“I’m arguing we should keep our options open…”

Should we expect Mr Blair to re-emerge suddenly in the coming months, as the final countdown to the triggering of Art 50 nears, and the final preparations for the undoubtedly gruelling negotiations get underway? Perhaps not, given that he would face opposition from the current Labour leader, and that last year he was the subject of a contempt motion in the Commons.

That Mr Blair could reverse his previous position, and make a return to frontline politics looks slim after comments from the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Last year, Mr Corbyn commented that Mr Blair will not return to the House of Commons whilst he remains leader of the party. He added that Mr Blair had ruled himself out of the upcoming by-election in Copeland which was triggered by Jamie Reed’s resignation. Moreover, last summer Mr Corbyn backed a motion which declared his predecessor guilty of contempt following the publication of the Chilcot Report.

Speaking of the Chilcot Report… Last year, the House of Commons debated a motion to find Tony Blair in contempt of Parliament over the build-up to Iraqi war. A cross-party group of MPs, from seven of the Westminster parties, presented a motion saying that following the publication of the Chilcot report into the conflict, it was clear the former Prime Minister had given the Commons “seriously misleading” statements in 2001, 2002 and 2003, and should be held in contempt of the house. In the wake of the report, the seven MPs had presented the Speaker with what they called a “dossier of truth” – a reference to the infamous “dodgy dossier” – seeking to detail how they believe Chilcot supposedly shows Blair misled the Commons.

The cross-party group, comprising Alex Salmond of the SNP, the Conservative Sir Roger Gale, Kate Hoey of Labour, Greg Mulholland from the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru’s Hywel Williams, Margaret Ritchie from the SDLP and Caroline Lucas of the Greens.The cross-party group had hoped to have the motion debated in July, but this was refused by the Speakerwho deemed the debate to be heard after the parliamentary recess, on one of the SNP’s allocated opposition days.

The motion called on MPs to recognise that the inquiry “provided substantial evidence of misleading information presented by the then prime minister and others on the development of the then government’s policy towards the invasion of Iraq as shown most clearly in the contrast between private correspondence to the United States government and public statements to parliament and people”. It also asked the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee to add to its current inquiry into the lessons to be learned from Chilcot “a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and to report on what further action is necessary to help prevent repetition of this disastrous series of events”.

The motion was failed to pass, by 439 votes to 70 – a margin of 369 votes. Whilst it had always seemed unlikely the motion would carry, it was still symbolic, as the power for the Commons to punish non-MPs has not been used for many years. Moreover, that the motion was presented on a cross-party basis and had secured the backing of senior MPs from both the Conservatives and Labour reflected the widespread frustration that the publication of the Chilcot report in July, after a seven-year inquiry, did not result in any government action or accountability for Blair.

So, whither Mr Blair? Potentially keeping his head down, and his cards to his chest. The motion to hold him in contempt of the UK Parliament might have failed, but it was still tabled and a three-hour debate ensured. That is a symbolic gesture that Mr Blair would not be warmly welcomed back by some MPs from his own party, let alone MPs from six other political parties at Westminster. Moreover, it is a sign that many feel his days in the spotlight are long over.

It just seems wonderfully ironic that Art 50 will be invoked in 2017, which concidentally will mark 20 years since Mr Blair won his first landslide General Election, and brought the Labour Pary back from the political wilderness. It seems unlikely that he will be the one to emulate his own success 20 years later.

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