Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The time has come to say the unsayable about the unspeakable. Tony Blair is back and we should be glad.
If you needed a reminder of what Britain lost when the New Labour leader went over to the dark side in 2002, all you had to do was listen to the interview he gave on Sunday to Radio 4’s World This Weekend: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09gzj6k#play
It was a bravura performance. Blair at the top of his game. Articulate, unassuming (clever, that!) and compelling, but above all, intelligent, he reminded us that big beasts in the political jungle are not yet extinct and that the art of the possible, no matter the odds, has to remain at the core of good governance.
To compare him with Theresa May is perhaps cruel. The PM should have been a schoolteacher, not a politician. No one surely believes that she will lead her party into the next election, which may come a lot sooner than many previously thought. Perhaps the politician who could best be mentioned in the same breath as Blair is David Cameron, another lost leader whose one fatal mistake – admittedly a corker – cancelled out a decade of real achievement.
As you would expect, Blair’s central message was that Brexit is an historic error and that if the UK doesn’t change its mind about leaving the EU it is doomed to a decade at least of decline both domestically and in terms of its relationships with the wider world. But, even if Mrs May hadn’t confirmed this week that the nation is not safe in her hands, you don’t have to be an ardent Remainer to be impressed by his argument.
I can’t think of any frontline Tory, other than Cameron, who could stand up to Blair in full flood. The PM would be no contest. Once forced to look up from her notes, she would be swept aside not only by his eloquence, but by his command of the facts. Boris Johnson would fall apart like Humpty Dumpty or an over-ripe Stilton. Michael Gove would send the audience to sleep. It is possible that Jacob Rees-Mogg could go a few rounds. But once the pleasantries were exhausted it would quickly become clear that the member for Somerset North East has little actual experience of the world beyond portfolio management and the internal workings of the Conservative Party.
If you still need convincing of his capabilities in a crisis, look up the history of the negotiations in 1998 that led to the Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland. Blair, unlike today’s Tories, knows how to deal with irreconcilable forces. He didn’t condescend to Unionists or Republicans. Nor did he hoodwink them. Instead, he convinced them that there was no alternative to compromise and that the enterprise on which they were engaged was bigger than all of them.
Would that he were in a position to deliver such a message to Unionists today.
But, I hear you say, isn’t Tony Blair the Great Deceiver of British politics – the man who led us up the garden path over Iraq? Yes, he is. Large as life and twice as ugly. And wasn’t what we all knew to be true vindicated by the Chilcot inquiry, which, even if it didn’t recommend that he be tried before the judges of the World Court, concluded that he had deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and then proceeded in accordance with his own beliefs rather than the facts as presented to him by the intelligence services? Again, yes. Guilty as charged.
But does this make him “evil,” as is frequently claimed? Ought we really to retch at the mere mention of his name? Are we not guilty of grave moral overstretch when we place him in the same category as Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladic, Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gadaffi and Saddam?
No one, other than Blair himself and his representative on Earth, Alastair Campbell, disputes than the New Labour leader got it catastrophically wrong about Iraq and its alleged weapons of mass-destruction. Nor does anyone seriously doubt that it was hubristic arrogance that ever since has prevented him from ever admitting his error. But to place him in the same tumbril as the authors of the Bosnian conflict or 9/11 is nothing short of absurd. No war leader ever gets it right all of the time. Churchill ordered the assault on the Dardanelles (though he later sent himself to the trenches to do penance); Thatcher sanctioned the sinking of the Belgrano – a reckless act that led to the deaths of hundreds of Argentinian sailors whose ship was sailing away from the Falklands. More recently, Cameron was among those who championed the bombing campaign that brought down Gaddafi and turned Libya into a failed state. I don’t recall anyone, even those who disliked him most, suggesting that the then prime minister should spend the rest of his life in a prison cell?
Don’t get me wrong. Blair is a deeply flawed and greedy individual who owes Britain an apology for taking it into a disastrous war on a false prospectus. But those who condemn him need to acknowledge that much of the detestation they feel towards him derives from their intense dislike of his transformation of the Labour Party into a centrist vehicle bent not on revolution but on the establishment of sound management principles. Today, perhaps because he is bored, perhaps because he is in search of redemption, or perhaps because, like a cut-down De Gaulle, he hopes once more to answer his country’s call, he feels the need to speak out on the issue of Europe, and even those who cannot forgive him for the Iraq debacle or who believe passionately in Brexit should listen to what he has to say.
It’s not as though Britain doesn’t urgently need a dose of reality. The chaotic tragi-comedy played out this week in Brussels, during which Theresa May once again demonstrated the calamitous incoherence of her Government’s stance on Brexit as well as her own lamentable lack of leadership, showed that a gap has opened up at the heart of public life that desperately needs to be filled.
There are those who will tell you that the Leave vote last June 23 was as much a judgement on the political élite as it was on Brexit, and perhaps that’s true. But if so, where does that leave the argument over Article 50? Were the 17.2 million voting to leave the EU or were they letting Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels know that they were mad as Hell and weren’t going to take it anymore? For this reason alone, the debate must now be widened.
Blair is not the only one who could step up. Cameron, Gordon Brown and John Major should also stand ready. Those who say that the nation has had more than enough of this particular quartet need to consider the alternatives. Mrs May, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox. What a collection! And against them, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott? Strewth! Are these really the best that Britain can do?
Even if it comes to nothing, what is there to lose by listening to what Tony Blair has to say? Does anyone truly believe that the referendum, conducted in the midst of a moral panic over immigration, was the last word on Britain’s future in Europe? Is there anyone with half a brain who honestly thinks that leaving the EU, with or without a deal, is the settled will of the British people? Time for the heavyweights to step up and stop the clock.