With a Labour wipeout predicted at the next election, Will Green tracks the rise and fall of the former prime minister and asks, would three-time winner Tony Blair ever return to mainstream politics?
It’s twenty years since Tony Blair and his New Labour government swept to power in an unprecedented landslide. Back in 1997 he was the great hope of the nation, the bright light at the end of a tunnel of almost two decades of Conservative rule. He was young, charismatic and had captured the mood of the country with the promise of hope, change and Cool Britannia. Things could only get better.
Fast forward to the present day and the picture could hardly be more different. Blair is still the most reviled politician in Britain, despite having left office a full ten years ago. Among large swathes of his own party, the term ‘Blairite’ is still the highest form of abuse. Moreover, the very agenda he stood for – centrist, globalist liberalism – has been rejected by voters and is being dismantled by a government that feels far more threatened by UKIP and the right-wing press than Labour’s official opposition.
But despite this stunning reversal in fortunes, Blair has not retreated from public life. And, after several years working in various roles focused on the Middle East peace process, he’s re-entered the British political landscape making powerful interventions on Europe, Brexit and the state of the current Labour Party. Furthermore, it has also emerged that long-time Labour backer Lord Sainsbury is withdrawing his financial support from Blairite pressure group Progress and instead shifting his backing to Tony Blair’s new organisation.
A comeback, of some sorts, is clearly underway. But does it have any hope of success? To understand the scale of the challenge facing Tony Blair in rehabilitating his reputation – and the venom in the arguments of those who oppose such a rehabilitation – you first have to look at the reasons he went from superman to super-villain in the eyes of so many.
Blair’s legacy will always be dominated by Iraq. The achievements of New Labour – and they are numerous – will forever be overshadowed by the one fateful decision to join with the US in the removal of Saddam Hussein.
In the minds of many voters, Blair’s stance on Iraq is a deeply visceral and personal betrayal. A significant number of MPs who are currently serving – including the current Prime Minister Theresa May – advocated and voted for the war in Iraq. But the blame for that decision lies squarely with Blair.
The fact that, according to YouGov, 54 per cent of people supported the war in 2003, whereas only 34 per cent recalled supporting it in 2015 is interesting but misleading. It speaks less to a collective amnesia of voters and more to the fact many feel they were sold a false bill of goods.
Had Saddam posed the threat that Blair claimed, had weapons of mass destruction been discovered, it’s highly likely his reputation today would be different. But as the invasion descended into bloody chaos and it became clear that the promised swift victory would turn into a long and costly occupation, the narrative developed that Blair was not simply mistaken, but had actively lied.
Despite being cleared of this charge by numerous inquiries, the impression remains that Blair was determined to go to war and was prepared to use any deception he could to achieve this.
To be clear, Blair could not have prevented the war in Iraq. President George Bush and the hawkish neo-conservatives in Washington were prepared to go it alone and without a UN resolution. But Blair’s alignment with Bush and the neo-cons was instrumental in cementing another damaging narrative about his leadership: that Blair’s ambition was to be a globe-trotting statesman, far more interested in winning standing ovations from the US Congress than pursuing a domestic agenda. Indeed, Blair admitted as much himself, telling a US magazine in 2015: “I’ve done British. Where I think I can make most difference is at a global level, working on things that had interested me as prime minister but I was not able to devote myself to.”
More than anything else, Iraq served to fuel the fury of those who had always opposed Blair. His full-blooded support of the right-wing Republicans allowed the left to accuse him of being a right-wing, greedy, war-monger; his impassioned and persuasive speeches that turned out to be based on untruths allowed the right to paint him as a snake-oil salesman with far more style than substance.
For the Labour Party, the issue of Iraq is unresolved and means many MPs, members and supporters are still uncomfortable defending New Labour’s legacy. History may judge Blair’s role in the invasion more kindly, but currently his association with the disastrous conflict is the single issue that makes a political comeback unlikely.
One of Tony Blair’s most significant political achievements – and a key reason behind New Labour’s electoral success – was making the party trusted on the economy. By 1997, the Labour Party was seen as the party of business, an unthinkable position compared to the 70s and 80s. A key tenet of Blairism was to be close to the City, promising liberal reforms such as deregulation of the Bank of England and a ‘light-touch’ approach to regulation in general.
To the public at large, meanwhile, the promise was simple: an end to the Tory years of ‘boom and bust’, where rapid growth would be quickly followed by heavy recession.
While Blair was in office, he delivered on this promise. The economy grew substantially throughout his tenure and the tax income from a burgeoning financial sector funded much of New Labour’s programme: record investment in the NHS, Sure Start, doubling the aid and education budgets and so on.
But within a year of Blair’s departure, the world economy was in crisis and Britain was at the start of a recession from which it has still not fully recovered. Though neither Tony Blair nor New Labour were responsible for the 2008 crash, running public spending deficits during the boom years and failing to reduce the national debt appeared like folly once the bust arrived.
A significant number of MPs who are currently serving – including the current Prime Minister Theresa May – advocated and voted for the war in Iraq. But the blame for that decision lies squarely with Blair
Moreover, the close relationship between New Labour and the City made any condemnation of irresponsible financial practices seem hypocritical in the extreme.
Once again, Blair’s record on the economy leaves him exposed to critics on all fronts. The right, like editor of the Spectator Fraser Nelson, condemn his profligacy: “He was the master of boom and bust. Never was there more egregious overheating, or a bigger dive, than under Labour’s disastrous economic stewardship.” The left, meanwhile, condemn his close relationship with the financial elites and accuse New Labour of selling out.
Like Iraq, it’s an issue which still haunts the present day party. Since 2010, there has been no attempt within the Labour leadership to defend New Labour’s economic policies, opting instead for the safe option of opposition to austerity. But such an approach has left the party open to the old ‘tax and spend’ caricature from the right. Blair’s economic legacy, it transpires, is the precise opposite of 1997: Labour is simply not trusted on the economy.
Immigration and multiculturalism
Where Tony Blair’s record on Iraq affected him personally and New Labour’s economic legacy has harmed the wider party, his stance on multiculturalism and immigration is likely to have the most profound lasting effect on the country at large. The massive rise in immigration during Blair’s tenure undoubtedly created the conditions in which UKIP could flourish and Brexit could become a reality.
And, whereas Blairites continue to defend their decisions over the issues above, on immigration they are willing to concede they got it wrong. Alistair Campbell, speaking to the Guardian in 2016, acknowledged: “We were more and more aware of the problem politically but there was always a tension between knowing that the economy and public services needed immigration but knowing the issue was causing real concerns. Just as in Scotland people started to feel Labour support was taken for granted so in areas of high immigration I think some Labour voters started to feel the same.”
For Blair, immigration was both a practical and philosophical prerogative. As Campbell points out, the economic arguments for high levels of immigration were, and remain, valid. If the argument was on economics alone, New Labour’s policies would be uncontentiously positive.
But within New Labour there was a higher social aspiration, too. As Blair’s speechwriter Andrew Neather wrote in 2009, Blair’s “driving political purpose” was that “mass immigration was the way to make Britain truly multicultural.”
These twin imperatives mean the immigration numbers under New Labour are staggering. In 1997 net migration was 48,000; just one year later it had trebled to 140,000. It has never fallen below 100,000 since.
Tony Blair failed to convince many voters of either the practical or moral virtues of mass immigration and his party are still paying the price today. Immigration is the number one issue for voters on the doorstep and Labour is seen by many as being on the wrong side of the argument, as evidenced by the loss of the Copeland by-election in February 2017, a strongly pro-Brexit area and a former Labour safe seat.
Tony Blair learnt an important media lesson from watching Neil Kinnock fail to win the 1992 election. He realised that Labour needed to find media support outside the traditional left-leaning publications like the Guardian and Daily Mirror.
His success in doing so can be demonstrated in two headlines. On election day 1992, the Sun published its famous front cover: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person in Britain please turn out the lights.” Just five years later, and it was Tony Blair on the front page: “The Sun backs Blair […] The people need a leader with vision, purpose and courage who can inspire them and fire their imaginations.“
Led by combative spin doctor Alistair Campbell, and aided by the Machiavellian Peter Mandelson, many publications, and especially the Murdoch press, were won over to the New Labour vision.
Once in office, however, the relationship quickly soured. The micro-management of journalists and news cycles, as well as blatant manipulations such as the ‘good day to bury bad news’ email sent by Jo Moore on 9/11, caused a fundamental breakdown in trust between the government and the public.
The massive rise in immigration during Blair’s tenure undoubtedly created the conditions in which UKIP could flourish and Brexit could become a reality
The peak of distrust was reached during Campbell’s feud with the BBC over the ‘dodgy dossier’ in the buildup to the Iraq war. BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan wrote a report which claimed the so-called September Dossier had been deliberately exaggerated – ‘sexed-up’ – by the government, and that the pressure exerted on scientist David Kelly who had questioned the dossier’s veracity had led to his suicide. Though Blair and Campbell were both exonerated by the Hutton Report, the ‘culture of spin’ narrative was already well-established.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 was a rejection of New Labour on many fronts, but his supposed ‘authenticity’ compared to Blair’s spin-doctored public image was certainly a significant factor. And the issue of spin remains a huge challenge for Blair. According to YouGov, the word voters most commonly associate with Blair is ‘liar’. Passionate and articulate speech-making count for nothing if the people listening simply don’t believe what you say.
For all of the above reasons, a return to elected office for Tony Blair seems highly improbable. But, over recent months, he has clearly signalled a desire for a clean slate. Following the Chilcot Inquiry – which he fervently hopes is the last Iraq inquiry he’ll face – Blair announced in December that he was launching a new institute for centre-ground politics. As part of the move, he has closed down his controversial commercial enterprise Tony Blair Associates and moved out of his plush offices in Grovesnor Square to a new premises.
This February he made a speech on Brexit which dominated a weekend’s news cycle, and more recently he appeared on Matt Forde’s ‘Unspun’ on Dave for a light-hearted human interest interview. In both, he demonstrated that his gifts for oratory, argument and light-touch populism remain undiminished.
But if he is to return to mainstream politics in some capacity, he still faces serious resistance. A YouGov poll last year found that 53 per cent of voters ‘can never forgive Tony Blair’ while a mere eight per cent think he did nothing wrong.
Moreover, and as Blair himself acknowledged in his speech to Open Britain, the answers to today’s problems are not the Blairite principles of 1997. The UK and the world have changed – both because of and in response to what Blair and New Labour did. A ‘New Blairism’ would not only have to reject the current political trajectory of Brexit, UKIP and Trump, but also distance itself from the original tenets of Blairite ideology to demonstrate its suitability for a radically altered political landscape.
The likelihood of such a political reformation remains small. The mood of the nation does not seem ripe for another dose of Tony Blair. On the other hand, as a modern political figure he remains unmatched. A dominant Conservative Party and an ineffective Labour opposition created the right conditions for Blair the first time round; it’s more than possible history could repeat itself.