He’s back. Though in truth he never went away — as the furious reaction to Tony Blair’s speech on Brexit from across the political spectrum showed. In the decade since his departure as prime minister Blair has been a spectre hovering, in executive class, above British politics.
Criticism came quickly. Nigel Farage, a man who’s failed on seven occasions to win election to the democratic body Blair once dominated, condemned his speech as anti-democratic (as incidentally echoing Farage, did Jeremy Corbyn), even as it opened with a democratic call to change minds. Iain Duncan Smith rose from the undead to denounce the man who so comprehensively humiliated him in his pomp that Michael Howard seemed blessed relief. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn reverted to what has become a Pavlovian response to the very word Blair and shouted Iraq and pondered a deeper conspiracy. Even figures on the right of the Labour Party, like Caroline Flint, who once might have been Blairite outriders expressed concern that his intervention would do more harm than good.
It should not surprise. All our politicians are defined by their opposition to or alleged admiration for Tony Blair. Theresa May’s determination placate the Faragist tendency in her own party is in part, a reaction to the veneer of Blairite cosmopolitanism David Cameron maintained, and which she sees as being rejected during the Brexit campaign.
Cameron’s downfall came about due to his fatal misunderstanding of Blair’s success being down to style rather than substance. The 2015 election proved to be his Borodino — the bloody victory that took him too far into enemy territory and overstretched his troops. Without the investment in public services and major projects of the New Labour years, the cleverly stoked and directed resentment of the ‘left behind’ overwhelmed him. As a poor Madame Tussauds approximation of the real thing unwilling to make the pro-European case until the last possible moment, he was swept away by the currents unleashed when he opened the sluice gate by calling a foolish referendum.
A short explanation of Labour’s myriad woes is each section of the party’s difficult and differing relationships with its former prime minister. Its past three leaders were chosen as for being less like Blair than the previous one, each further erasing the image of the reviled former idol. The left of the party’s revulsion of him makes it more focused on purging Blairite ghosts, real and imagined, than how it turns its ideas into an election winning program. Centrists, even those who supported or played a part in his defenestration, struggle with intellectual calcification in part because the act of displaying pragmatism is tainted in the eyes of many due to its association with him.
It’s understandable therefore that even those on the left who do not regard Blair as an irredeemable rogue did not react with unbridled warmth to the return to the fray of the last Labour leader to win an election. Even those who admire Blair are fed up of having decade old arguments about him.
In rubbishing the man though, either for past sins or reasons of tactical expediency, Blair’s detractors betrayed an insecurity. His speech asked searching questions of the right, and even more profound ones of the left.
In particular, in one key passage he said:
“The economic future which could work outside of Europe is exactly the low tax, light regulation, offshore free market hub, with which Mrs May threatens our European neighbours, but which to the Brexit ideologues is a promise of things to come.
Indeed, this is what many in business say they’re being told by Government Ministers, but of course behind the hand, because this is the exact opposite of what the mass of voters are being told when promised a fairer capitalism with a better deal for the workers.This free market vision would require major re-structuring of the British economy and its tax and welfare system.
It will not mean more money for the NHS but less; actually it probably means a wholesale rebalancing of our healthcare towards one based on private as much as public provision. It will not mean more protection for workers, but less.
And if that were what we wanted to do as a country, we could do it now. Europe wouldn’t stop us. But as of now the British people would, because they wouldn’t vote for it.
So the ideologues know they have to get Brexit first; then tell us this is the only future which works; and by that time they will be right.”
Here, Blair succinctly outlines a point that has been fairly obvious for a while, but which politicians on both left and right refuse to admit.
It makes the right uncomfortable because it exposes the deal they did with the devil to get what they wanted all along. The likes of Daniel Hannan, Liam Fox and John Redwood have long championed leaving the EU for precisely the reason Blair outlines. Hannan has been giving speeches since the early-2000s arguing that Britain should become a low tax offshore hub (I had the dubious pleasure of attending one as a college student). Within the single market and customs union, it was unnecessary and undesirable to all but a few zealots. But simple economics dictates that leaving such a comprehensive free trade deal as the single market and accompanying customs union will impose new costs on business. They will leave or shrink, unless you compensate them or attract new ones by moving to a lower tax and regulation model. Either way, the state is diminished — as both options mean lower government revenue and therefore less to spend. What once was unthinkable and undesirable becomes inevitable. Asking why the Tory right love the idea of Brexit is like asking a busload of vampires why they always choose the blood bank as the location for their monthly excursion.
Right-wingers riding populist tigers in pursuit of narrow ideological aims should of course surprise no one. Alarm, yes, but it’s what they do. It is why if you saw a scorpion in the bath you wouldn’t get in. They sting. Scorpions prefer to stay hidden until it’s too late for their prey — hence the anger at Blair for pointing out what’s at the end of the Brexit tail.
What of the left, and in particular Labour though? Whatever you think of Blair as a man, it’s a warning that requires an answer as to how one prevents it coming true.
Jeremy Corbyn’s response to Blair’s speech was this, after telling Blair to “respect the result” and saying, “We are leaving the European Union”, he added:
“We are going to be outside the European Union. We are not leaving the continent of Europe, we are still going to work with them.
“I think it would be helpful if people put their energies in the direction of building those good relations and ensuring we have a viable economy, not some offshore tax haven bargain basement, doing deals with Trump’s America.
“My job is to take our party forward into an investment-led economy that reduces inequality in this country, that builds houses when people need them, that gets the good jobs people need in the hi-tech industries the National Investment Bank will fund. Get on board with that strategy.”
Which is to say he did not provide an answer to Blair’s warning at all, because that isn’t a strategy unless you are an Underpants Gnome. For those who aren’t fans of South Park, Underpants Gnomes are tiny bearded critters with a bizarre fixation on stealing the characters’ underpants. When asked why, they produced a business plan reading:
- Collect underpants
The joke of course being, that the key part of the plan — how you get from the plan’s start point to the desired outcome, is never specified. Corbyn’s ‘strategy’ is similar; Britain leaves the European Union, ????, prime minister Corbyn presides over a thriving socialist economy.
Look at this phrase: “We are not leaving the continent of Europe, we are still going to work with them.”
Work with them how? In what capacity? In the single market? As part of whatever trade deal Theresa May negotiates, however bad? To collect underpants?
He does not, and has never addressed the central thrust of Blair’s argument, that leaving the single market and customs union makes the aspirations held by any left-wing government far more difficult to achieve. It is not disputed by any economist, nor even the most ardent Brexiteer that leaving those will be without economic costs which depending on your opinion range from the inconvenient to the disastrous. In their more honest and plausible moments Brexiteers square the circle by arguing for the things Corbyn rules out; deals with any nation that will have us and tax and regulatory cuts will outweigh the costs. Whether they will, or whether they are desirable are open to debate, but as Blair points out — it fills in the question mark, even as it takes us to a place few Britons and neither Blair nor Corbyn want to be.
Corbyn’s situation is of course made worse by poll ratings that even an Underpants Gnome could Fosbury Flop over. He can talk about a future “bargain basement” economy all he likes and Theresa May can negotiate whatever she wants and safely ignore him as posing little electoral threat. But let’s say in 2020, May having presided over the beginnings of a Brexit downturn, Jeremy Corbyn or any other Labour leader — from any wing of the party — sits in 10 Downing Street the leader of a Britain that has exited the EU and is outside the single market. What then?
They would still face the same problem — we would have a trade deal with Europe that even on the best negotiable terms imposed additional costs on British business, as well as having to negotiate new ones from a position of weakness compared to the ones we could get as part of a market of over 400 million people. That would mean less money in the long run for reducing inequality, housing, welfare, that shiny investment bank, the NHS and for investment in hi-tech industries, who lest we forget would still need us to do trade deals to have somewhere to sell their wares. And of course, if you hadn’t noticed, none of those things couldn’t be achieved within the single market, and would be far easier to do fiscally with the financial boost you receive from being in it.
In his speech, Blair spoke of, “The debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit.”
This was understandably taken as a criticism of Corbyn’s leadership. Of course in part it was, and it elicited the inevitable and irrelevant citation of the party’s membership from the man himself. Blair’s choice of language is interesting though as it spoke of an enfeebled party, not just its rotten head.
Caught between their gnomish leader and constituencies that voted leave even strong willed Labour MPs and supporters are lost at sea, many see no option but to ride out the storm and hope there’s something salvageable when the twin storms end — to avoid the endless accusations of “betraying the will of the people”, in the hope the populist tide recedes. A major purpose of Blair’s speech was a warning to those of us on the left that without rediscovering the will to fight now there may not be.
The last line of that key passage is what should terrify anyone on the left, “So the ideologues know they have to get Brexit first; then tell us this is the only future which works; and by that time they will be right.”
Blair, who spent years in government trying to roll back Tory underfunding of public services only in absentia to eventually see his government accused of profligacy, knows the stakes better than most. A Britain outside the single market and so even more reliant on its competitiveness to pay its way would be even more boxed in when it came to policy choices than it is now.
The estimable John Curtice has argued the real threat to Labour may come from the Lib Dems, sweeping up Labour Remain voters, as in general even in heavily ‘Leave’ areas most Labour voters sided with Remain. The logic that Labour unconditionally backing Brexit is a tactical necessity has always been flimsier than it appears, due to Curtice’s observations, the differing nature of first past the post electorates and elections and how voters behave when electing governments rather than voting on a single issue, but even if it were a tactically astute move, Blair’s argument that it’s a strategic misstep is a compelling one.
In almost any form other than the softest, Brexit shifts the plausible policy options available to any government to the right by default. By indulging in quiescent Micawberism while Theresa May draws up Brexit terms, Labour and the left as an electoral force capable of steering the country towards the warmer seas of social democracy may be voluntarily walking the plank.
Is Tony Blair the ideal person to carry this message, to lead a liberal left fightback, an anti-Brexit uprising? Almost certainly not. Although the most strident criticism of him can drift into the unhinged, he must bear a significant degree of responsibility for the difficulties of the pro-European left, and few individuals are more symbolic of an elite to whom the public are wont to extend a sympathetic ear.
But even if you loathe him, his warning is a stark and compelling one. Either the left fights to maintain the trading and political relationship that has anchored Britain to European social democracy or we will be playing a political game with very different rules — ones which favour the Hannans of this world rather than the Blairs and Browns let alone the Jeremy Corbyns.
Tony Blair returning to the political fray in an attempt to galvanise the left into a fightback aimed at stopping Britain careening right is clearly not an ideal situation. It is probably not a position Blair wants to be in himself. But with the oblivious Corbyn sleepwalking the Labour Party and by extension the left as a parliamentary force towards the edge of a cliff, perhaps he has no choice. Someone capable of commanding the agenda had to speak up and say that by the time some think the “real fight” starts, it may be far too late.
It is understandable, thanks to the shadow he casts over our politics, that many on the left will not want to listen to Labour’s former leader. This time however, the one fate worse than Tony Blair is to ignore him.