What’s Sir Tony Blair up to? The former Prime Minister’s decision to put on a future of Britain ideas “festival” featuring lots of middle ground speakers this summer has prompted speculation he is preparing to launch a new centrist party. This is nonsense. Blair is not going to launch a new party because he knows it would not work. His entire career is a vindication of the theory that to win power in Britain it is first essential to take control of one of the two main parties, the Conservative party or the Labour party. This is how the voting system works and how he won. It is the practical reality of how most non-political people, that is voters, think about politics, which they rarely do. One side is in for a stretch, gets tired and arrogant, and is then flung out and replaced with the other lot, if the other lot are perceived by sufficient numbers of voters to be not nuts.

Even during the Corbyn catastrophe when Labour went completely nuts, when the far left had control of Labour and various attempts were made to start “Stop Brexit” breakaway parties, Blair gave only polite encouragement to the rebels. What mattered, he understood, was getting the Labour party back and building from there under a new leader. Sir Keir Starmer would not have been Blair’s ideal. Blair’s ideal would, presumably, be a younger version of Tony Blair. That ideal not being available, and with too many Labour members still too left-wing, soft left Starmer it is.

What should be clear as day is that Blair is now engaged on a mission to help design the policy programme for the next Labour government. His foundation – the Tony Blair Institute – was originally established to “make globalisation work” (remember that idea?). While it still advises governments abroad and tracks international developments, the focus is increasingly on exploring potential reforms in Britain. The Institute published a report this week on reforming mortgage finance, proposing a plan to help more first time buyers get into the market and buy a home. 

The Blair festival, with its mix of centrists, anti-Boris Tories, media celebrities and technocrats, is obviously part of this effort, to help create the conditions for Blair-style reforms to public services and taxation. Shadow cabinet members, realising all of a sudden thanks to the travails of the Tories that they may be back in business, will need policies on the economy, housing, crime and the NHS, to take off the shelf.

Blair’s involvement should worry the Tories, although it probably won’t. It indicates he thinks Starmer and Labour can win again. He’s right on that. For all Blair’s flaws, and I’ve criticised him more than most for his ahistorical constitutional vandalism and licensing of Gordon Brown’s hubris in office, few have a better reading of the topography of the electoral landscape and shifts in national sentiment than Tony Blair

On much of the centre-right mention of Blair produces laughter or blind fury. Unpopular Tony Blair? Architect of the Iraq disaster? Father of Brexit via his EU and migration policies? With Blair back helping Labour you might as well hand the Tories the next election now, no?

This is the centre-right equivalent of the Farage furies, by which I mean Blair and Farage are both big politicians, like Boris, who drive their opponents so mad they can’t think clearly. And from that make mistakes and misread what is going on.

What is going on is that in recent weeks there has been one of those changes in the air pressure that points to a coming change in the weather.

There is a Labour government coming. 

The latest YouGov poll published this week, studying 88 battleground seats, suggests the Tories would as of now lose all but three of those seats, including the Prime Minister’s own constituency.

The scale of Labour’s defeat at the 2019 general election makes it extremely difficult for the party to win an overall majority. But to become the largest party, heading a minority government and then going again with another election once in office, is feasible. The growing anti-Tory sentiment as the list of scandals lengthens, the collapse in trust flowing from Partygate, the Prime Minister’s chaotic approach to government, and the difficult economic situation, are a toxic combination for the Conservatives. Voters are also working out how to vote tactically to inflict maximum damage on the Tories.

What can stop Labour? History suggests the Labour party will now have a good go at stopping there being a Labour government. Indeed, Labour, or more narrowly London Labour, is the biggest threat to the party’s hopes. To persuade normal Britons and win power, Labour must prove it is patriotic, mainstream, fiscally sensible, tough on crime, trustworthy on defence, and uninterested in dwelling in the parallel universe of wokery. 

On Saturday, the Labour MP Stella Creasy gave an interview to the Telegraph prompted by her experience of misogyny and threats of sexual violence, an important subject.

But during the interview Creasy was asked about her ultra-liberal views on transgenderism and self-certification, the process by which those wishing to transition should, she says, be able to do so at will without any medical approval.

She was asked if a woman can have a penis. Yes, she replied.

A Twitter row ensued. Creasy got annoyed in a somewhat pompous way with her critics, many of them feminists and some former Labour voters saying they cannot vote for the party again because of Labour’s uselessness on this issue. Whatever the nuance and complexity of the arguments, what cuts through is a Labour MP getting a lot of attention for saying “yes” to a notion that sounds transparently ridiculous, when asked if a woman can have a penis.

The Labour leadership can see the danger in this stuff. Anneliese Dodds, shadow women and equalities secretary, said she disagrees with Creasy. Women can’t have a penis

She told Sky News: “I don’t agree her. There are trans women who have made a transition in their gender. But sex is not the same as gender.”

The polling suggests most Britons are relatively relaxed on the transgender question. If adults want to change gender, then live and let live and all that. Older voters particularly, and women especially, are less relaxed about the erosion of women’s status and any weakening of the rights to women only spaces and legal protections. A Labour MP saying women can have a penis amounts to waving around London Labour ultra-progressive opinions in front of sensible voters, who will think any party that promotes people with such views must have a screw loose. 

This follows other more senior Labour figures being caught out by broadcasters asking them to define the word women. They can’t.

This is the London Labour state of mind, and it is the greatest threat to Labour’s chances of forming the next government, maybe even greater than Starmer lacking charisma.

You don’t have to be from London to be London Labour or talk like London Labour. Laura Pidcock, the defeated Red Wall Corbynite and permanently baffled far left activist who must live life in a state of bewilderment that there is a Tory government, this week took a pop at the Jubilee.

Pidcock tweeted:

“I just feel like there is a real grossness to the state driven Jubilee celebration fanfare. People are skint, getting so much more skint & full of worry & we are supposed to go out & celebrate 70 years of unadulterated, unaccountable wealth, privilege, power & exploitation? Nah.”

A lot of people are skint and worried. This week the Chancellor unveiled a whacking great splurge of extra spending aimed at dealing with the cost of living crisis, infuriating some on the free market wing of his party and demonstrating that there is, in terms of tax and spending, already a Labour government in all but name.

Pidcock’s ideological leap from the cost of living crisis to dissing the Queen, and the Jubilee, is classic London Labour, though, and illustrates the opposition’s problem. As Ian Leslie, author of the Ruffian newsletter, put it this week: most Britons quite like their country and the Queen is rightly very popular. That’s the broad centre of opinion. In contrast, he says: “For most middle-class left-leaning folk it’s basically quite uncool to express even mild pride in your country.”

Leslie is New Labour-ish in his outlook and describes his patriotism in the following terms:

“I’m a patriot, albeit a rather watery one. I don’t weep to the national anthem, but I’m sentimentally attached to Britain’s history, its literature, music and ideas, its countryside and its cities (well mainly the one in which I live, London). I like or at least admire its institutions and want them to endure: parliament, the BBC, the Royal Family, Pret a Manger. These are subjective opinions, but I also think Britons are pretty much objectively one of the most free, most happily diverse, most tolerant and least bigoted peoples in the world. Whatever past sins Britain has committed (and they are obviously significant), and whatever our shortcomings today, there is a lot in which to take pride.”

If the Labour leadership sticks on the sensible side of that patriotic line it can win. If voters outside London hear too much from London Labour in the run up to the next election, even the kamikaze Tories might be able to recover.

Joyful Jubilee

With the Jubilee this week Britain celebrates a glorious reign of 70 years and a lifetime of public service. It is also a fantastic excuse for a four day break, which is just what the country needs. In narrow economic terms it will hit growth, because most of us will be lying around eating Victoria sponge for four days rather than doing anything productive. We’ll worry about that after the Jubilee. After everything that has happened – the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, partygate – we’re all overdue something unrelentingly positive. I suspect it will be a little like the 2012 London Olympics, an event that creeps up on us and provides a heartwarming reminder of how much most of us like this country.

Doughnut Europe – a continent with a hole in it

President Macron of France and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz spent 80 minutes on the telephone with President Putin last week, during which the Russian leader told all sorts of lies and they urged him to open negotiations with President Zelensky. Putin refused and was defiant.

Rumours swirl about which bits of Ukraine France and Germany expect Ukraine to give to Putin, or rather which bits of his country they expect Zelensky to sacrifice in negotiations to de-escalate the war, if such a thing is possible. The aim seems to be to get France and Germany back into stable and economically beneficial relations with Russia.

Even putting to one side whether there is any point negotiating with Putin, on the basis that he is monster, a criminal, and a fantasist whose word is worthless, this diplomatic effort looks likely to have long term consequences in terms of European security. One hundred days into the war, it is shaping how other countries, such as Poland and the Baltic nations, and Sweden and Finland, view France and Germany. Unlike Macron and Scholz these countries don’t want detente with the Kremlin. They look at Ukraine and fear they are next. It is doubtful they’ll want to be led on security and defence by two countries who prioritise talking to Putin and haven’t done enough on helping Ukraine with military aid despite early promises. In Brussels, the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen appears to have realised this and has tried to be much more robust and pro-Ukrainian.

Far from uniting Europe, regrettably the war so far has revealed a continent divided on defence. It’s a doughnut continent with a France and Germany shaped hole in the middle.

What I’m reading

Michael Crick’s biography of Nigel Farage is magnificent. So much has happened in British politics since the financial crisis, and yet no novel, film or documentary I can think of has yet captured fully the extraordinary weirdness of this period. Crick’s biography does.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of the Brexit era. Many who voted to Leave, me included, were turned off by Farage. I wouldn’t, couldn’t, have voted for it if Farage had won the campaign designation and led the Leave side in 2016. And yet, Farage is clearly one of the most significant figures of our times, despite never having won election to the Commons. The referendum would not have been allowed or conceded by the terrified Conservatives without his campaigning.

When a couple of centuries from now all has faded away, and only the most famous Prime Ministers of the late 20th and early 21st century are remembered, if at all, I suggest historians will be fascinated by Farage. He represents a very particular type of home counties merrie England. Semi-rural, City-trading, noisy, late Victorian or Edwardian, a blend of Toad of Toad Hall from Wind in the Willows (1908) and the original Jingoist blowhard populists with their pin-stripes and patriotic tunes.

There are parallels with John Wilkes, radical journalist, member of the Hell-fire Club and 18th century politician who was expelled from parliament by the establishment and became popular as a defender of liberty. Wilkes is still much studied now, because he had such a formative role in the creation of a free press, and because he represented a strand of anti-establishment ideas that was then bubbling up. Those ideas led later to parliamentary reform. He was influential in the debates in revolutionary America on freedom of speech and the press. Most British of all, Wilkes later joined the establishment, becoming Lord Mayor of London and having his portrait painted (with his daughter Mary) by Zoffany, the society painter, in 1782. It’s in the National Portrait Gallery.

As Crick says, Farage longs to join the establishment. He seems rather hurt that he has not been admitted to the House of Lords when all manner of friends of the Prime Minister have made it in, having made less of an impact than Farage. Perhaps he will one day in a  decade or so join some aspect of the establishment, and have his portrait painted as Wilkes did, and maybe even end up in the House of Lords. As the last few decades have shown, stranger things have happened.