There must be something about Bloomberg speeches. Tony Blair’s speech this week has caused a furore, about both the man and the hour.
Two preliminary comments. He said little new. His view that Brexit was a disastrous mistake and that a second referendum should not be ruled out has been said by him before. Indeed this time he simply talked of the possibility of people changing their minds as the prospect of a hard Brexit became clearer. He did not specifically mention a re-run.
While much has been made of his record in office, and particularly Iraq, as well as his remunerated activities since then, there has been little mention of his European record.
And, quite frankly, that record is patchy for someone rightly considered to be our most European leader since Edward Heath. But as party leader and later in office he made a series of Faustian pacts; first with Rupert Murdoch with Labour’s commitment not to join the euro without a referendum; and then with Gordon Brown, submitting to successive postponements thanks to the notorious Treasury tests. And in his last term in office he proposed submitting the European constitution to a referendum.
So while relations with our European partners were in general positive, Iraq notwithstanding, and although there were some good initiatives, like Franco-British defence cooperation and the Lisbon competitiveness agenda (strong on promise but weak on delivery) the Blair Ascendancy was in European terms a missed opportunity. By staying out of the euro, Blair seemed to accept a semi-detached relationship rather than being at the heart of Europe.
Above all, when he was at his peak, the walking-on-water period, he never used his extraordinary persuasive powers to argue the European case in Britain. There were some good speeches on the EU but they were made abroad.
But neither this nor his general legacy nor his consultancies disqualifies him from speaking out now. If he believes as he so patently and sincerely does that Brexit is an event which could have disastrous consequences for the UK then it’s his duty to speak out.
Now the outline of the kind of Brexit envisaged by the government is becoming clear, with – contrary to the promises of the Leave campaign – a disorderly exit from the single market and the customs union, in the wider context of a reshaping of the British economic and social model, chipping away at the welfare state and regulatory safeguards for consumers, people at work and the environment.
The wonder is not that Tony Blair raises the alarm, the truly extraordinary thing is that the Labour party in its majority meekly abandons all opposition.
It is not surprising that Tory Brexiteers, and their media masters, discomforted by the return to active service of the Great Communicator, go for the man not the ball. Although lessons from Boris Johnson about probity and honesty are hard to stomach.
But why Labour MPs should feel obliged to question the right of their most successful leader to have a view is almost beyond belief.
Is it then just a question of ‘the hour’? Is this unhelpful on the eve of two difficult by-elections in the Brexit heartlands. Was it even a deliberate act of sabotage? My own view is that Labour is quite capable of losing seats without any help from Tony Blair: its predilection for permanent division; the absence of a convincing economic programme; the mediocrity of its front bench and its craven ‘metooism’ on Brexit.
If Labour is incapable of retaining relatively safe seats like Copeland and Stoke it may simply be that ‘UKIP-lite’ and rolling over when the government pushes its hard Brexit agenda make for an unimpressive alternative to right-wing populism. The attack on Blair by the front bench for speaking out now begins to look like getting your excuses in early.
I would, however, have three words of caution for Tony Blair, someone for whom I retain great but critical respect.
The first is that he needs to surround himself with new voices, not simply re-treads from the Blair Camelot.
The second is when he talks about the need to organise, this is not something that is done by think tanks and Institutes within the London bubble. ‘Organisation’ requires preparations for a ground war with activists in the regions and the countries of the UK federated in a national campaign, the exact opposite of the fiasco that was the No 10-based Remain campaign in June 2016.
Finally, he needs to be clear. Is this part of a political re-alignment strategy or not? If Labour’s decline continues then the case for a viable progressive alternative becomes unanswerable but at the moment the priority has to be bringing together that half of the country which opposed Brexit and reaching out to the other side on the basis of the Brexit we know now not the Brexit pipe-dream from last June.
Embarking on a hundred days’ restoration project for the prophet of New Labour, like some latter-day Napoleon after the escape from Elba to take back the country, should not be anybody’s priority now, not even his.