His comeback will take the form of a new centre ground campaign. It is most welcomeby John McTernan / December 2, 2016 / Leave a comment
We need to talk about Tony. That’s not an imperative statement, just one of fact. Whenever Tony Blair re-enters the debate there is a breathless cycle of reporting, commentary, phone-ins and finally meta-commentary.
The latest example concerns his announcement that he will restructure his various organisations and enterprises. Put simply, Blair is moving his charitable organisations under one roof and gifting them the accumulated profit—many millions—of his commercial organisation, Tony Blair Associates. In addition, he is developing a new “pillar” of his not-for-profit work. It is worth quoting what he says about this. It is—in effect—a manifesto:
“This is the creation of a platform designed to build a new policy agenda for the centre ground… and allow a reasonable and evidence based discussion of the future which avoids the plague of social media-led exchanges of abuse.
“This platform will have a policy unit which will draw on the best ideas and practical solutions.”
It will be “a platform for engagement to inform and support the practising politician.”
One might ask why Tony Blair attracts so much attention when he has not been a frontline politician for nearly a decade. At times like these we see why—he fills a hole in British politics that no-one else does.
As Blair so pointedly, and poignantly, put it in a recent interview: “I think in Britain today, you’ve got millions of effectively politically homeless people.” He is not wrong. That, first and foremost, is what enrages and engages people. Blair puts his finger on it—nearly half the voters in the UK have no effective voice. Theresa May clings to the platitudinous observation that “Brexit means Brexit,” while Jeremy Corbyn celebrates the life of a murderous, oppressive and homophobic tyrant.
Until this week those millions were unrepresented politically. Now they are not. This is not because of Blair’s intent to set up his “platform,” but because voters have done what they do best—they used a by-election to say: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Zac Goldsmith self-indulgently resigned his seat in the House of Commons and subjected himself to the verdict of the voters, who concluded that “Brexit means Exit.” For Zac, anyway.
At the moment, this is a containable crisis for Theresa May and uncontainable joy for Tim Farron, but for the future it is a sign that an iron law of politics is re-asserting itself—when you believe and act, as the Tory government does, as if the electorate have no choice, then they will always show you they do.
The re-emergence of Tony Blair into public life is potent because it is at a pivotal moment. He still possesses all the political gifts and, in particular, he generates excitement—there is always a bit of flash when Blair talks.
Why? Why does he fascinate and captivate us? It is simple really. For one thing, he has a clear analysis. Just look at the words quoted above, his recent interviews or his article in The New European. The scrupulous overview, the penetrating insight, the arresting phrasing—all are part of a complete world-view, an orientation, a vision of where we are and where we have to go to. It echoes in our ears not because it is contested but because the broad sweep has been utterly—and shamefully—absent from public life.
For another thing, Blair retains the respect of his peers. Just look at the stunning defeat in the Commons of the SNP’s meretricious attack on him over Iraq. Not only did over 150 Labour MPs back him—after imposing their support for Blair on Corbyn and his leadership team. But the Tories also swarmed in to back Blair and spurn Alex Salmond who had promoted the parliamentary attack on the former Prime Minister.
This was unusual—normally the government just ignore these “opposition day” motions since they have no effect on policy. In this case, the honour of all MPs—and the Commons—was being besmirched, and the vast majority of MPs defended the mother of Parliaments. And Blair.
Finally, and most importantly, Blair affects us, and at times antagonises us, because he refuses to give up. He won’t give up on the Labour Party. He won’t give up on us. Most of all, he won’t give up on hope. Blair sees a better way—which most of us don’t. He talks eloquently about it. He gets under our skin because he is the better angel of our nature—and we know it.