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Visitors to Tony Blair’s lair report that he is up for the formation of a new, centrist party that could take on the role of opposition to the Conservatives and even in time form an anti-Brexity government. The former Prime Minister is reported to be hungry to get going again, to lead a progressive movement that might stop the Tories dominating the next few decades. At the height of Blair’s New Labour, such an outcome – Labour wrecked, Blair stranded in internal exile, the UK heading out of the EU and a Tory leader out to build a powerful electoral coalition that might get to 45% of the vote – would have seemed a bizarre proposition. New Labour looked impregnable.
In truth, Blair always understood that his ostensibly dominant project was fragile, because the centre-left in the UK has a tendency to be captured by fantasist fanatics who will brook no compromise with the voters of England. Or it stays divided or splits (Labour, Liberal, SDP) and cannot get round the UK’s first past the post voting system. Blair’s understanding that New Labour was fragile partly explains why he and his team were so obsessed with control and squashing dissent, lest old bad habits reappeared. In contrast, the Tories for all their flaws have a ruthless, unsentimental way of broadly sticking together, even if they feud like mad, knowing that the electoral system requires them to hang together or they will hang separately.
For all his posturing and endless essay-writing, Gordon Brown, Blair’s partner in New Labour, understood all this less well, partly because he lacked a feel for England but also because he was far too sentimental about the Labour movement. He failed in quite spectacular fashion after removing Blair, who was the true architect of New Labour. Ever since then the moderate centre-left has been leaderless, resulting in the current situation in which the progressive portion of the electorate that voted Remain feels it should fight Brexit but has no standard, no prince, to rally to. But look out, here comes Tony, charging onto the battlefield…
Blair fans – all three of them (joking, there are at least ten) – draw the conclusion that the obvious answer to the centre-left’s difficulties and the Brexit dilemma is the return in some capacity of Blair. The man himself – the old smoothy – never needs much encouragement on that score.
This week they have their wish. Blair penned a piece for “The New European” – in the process rallying the Remainers and claiming “we are the insurgents now.” Brexit must be scrutinised intensively and voters should be given a chance to change their mind and vote again at some point. This greatly cheered some Remainers, who hailed the clarity of his appeal and even the supposedly moral force of his argument. Blair is going to lead the charge to prevent Brexit, by saying it cannot be blocked but working towards a second referendum designed to block it. The voters of England who went for Brexit will never see that as sneaky, tricksy and inherently insulting. Oh no, of course not. His former spin-doctor Alastair Campbell declared all this “spot on,” which should have set alarm bells ringing.
I do sometimes wonder if Blair and Campbell have slept through the last decade, or if the brutality of their eviction from office and the Iraq experience has simply blunted their ability to process inconvenient reality.
Tony Blair is the very worst person to try and block or frustrate Brexit. Tony Blair is not incidental to Brexit. Tony Blair is one of the major causes of Brexit.
Not only is his period in office best termed the most expensive work experience programme in British history. By the time he had finished being Prime Minister he had just about got the hang of it. In the process – alongside doing extremely valuable work on school reform – he helped create the conditions for Britain leaving the European Union. Look at the evidence.
Between 1997 and 2010, net annual immigration quadrupled. All of the polling suggests that a clear majority voters did not like this and do not feel they were ever asked for their permission. Worse, they were called racist when they or others questioned the scale and speed of what was being done. This happened under Blair, it was arguably even an object of policy, to dilute stuffy old Britain and make it more go-ahead. For substantial numbers of Leave voters, Blair’s migration explosion (and the inability to control the portion from the EU) was a significant factor in their decision.
The impact of the financial crisis created the backdrop for Brexit too. Neither Blair nor Brown caused the financial crisis, although they bought into the veneration of the new mega-bank model and the supremacy of central banks and their narrow targeting of inflation. But it is unarguable that the UK was left more exposed to the crisis than any other major economy, because the badly regulated banking system had been allowed to balloon and government spending was too high and overly dependent on taxes from the City that could – and did for a while – diminish alarmingly. It is a tough old world, we are all human and mistakes are made, but even so. For the person who presided over the disaster of a return to boom and bust to now pop up – cheerily prattling on, the leader of the anti-Brexit movement – is a bit rich.
Then there is the domestic legacy of Iraq. It is a policy failure that more than anything since the Suez crisis contributed to the destruction of trust in governing institutions. The absence of trust and a surge in anger helps explain Brexit.
On the European Union itself, Blair remorselessly handed away sovereignty in pursuit of an illusion, British leadership of the EU. Voters did not like it, poll after poll showed, and if in what seemed like an economic boom they did not make their distaste for a weakening of self-government the deciding issue in any general election, they still did not like the process of integration delivered by stealth, obfuscation and denial of democratic rights. This was Blair, again.
I won’t even mention on top of that Blair’s mangling of the constitution (at Brown’s urging) which gifted Scotland to the Scottish National Party, and created English resentment which fed into the Brexit decision on June 23rd, when a lot of English voters finally wanted their voices heard clearly.
In such circumstances, the voters of England who opted for Brexit are not going to be cool with Blair reappearing as the blocker of Brexit. Many of them, if he persists, will be absolutely livid. Indeed, if you were setting out to increase support for Brexit – and to inspire a march of millions of angry voters on London – you would draft in Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.