10 Years on from his resignation as Prime Minister, Tony Blair remains the most divisive figure in British politics – but did it have to be this way?
This weekend a video emerged from the Progress conference of the journalist and broadcaster, Paul Mason tackling the ‘Blairites’ within the Labour party.
After being boxed into a corner, he bravely told them “If you want a centrist party, this is not going to be it for the next ten years. If it’s really important to you to have a pro-Remain party that is in favour of illegal war, in favour of privatisation, form your own party and get on with it.”
Mason is right to highlight that the ‘centre’ of the party has had their opportunity to wield power and there is no doubting that the left now have the ascendancy. As this blog tries to illuminate, politics is cyclical – and the centrists within Labour will certainly have their time again.
Ironically, for all the hatred on the left for Blair’s leadership style, some are in danger of simplifying the 13 years of Labour government into a neat and convenient soundbite, swallowing the Tory narrative about his achievements as PM.
Today marks the 10 year anniversary of Tony Blair leaving office and many within the party celebrated then and will celebrate today. But very few Prime Minister’s experience the luxury of leaving office at a time of their own choosing. John Major left after being humiliated by the electorate. Thatcher had her ‘tears in the backseat’ after being humiliated by her own party. David Cameron humiliated himself with an arrogant referendum gamble, which backfired spectacularly and put him on the scrap heap before he’d reached the age of 50.
Compared to the majority of Prime Ministers, Blair went out at the very top. Of course, there had been pressure from Brown throughout his tenure to quit but Blair was not the victim of significant political events beyond his control. Like Thatcher, he never lost an election in the party or the country. He was able to enjoy a high-profile six-week farewell tour – albeit at the cost of £750,000 to the taxpayer, the like of which we will never see again.
Yet of all the political leaders who have departed, none have experienced such a spectacular fall from grace as Blair. Is it deserved? It certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion 10 years ago today.
And That Is That – The End
The spectre of Iraq loomed large over Blair’s final day in office. Before his farewell PMQs there was a small antiwar protest outside Number 10 – no doubt endorsed by the current Labour leadership. Blair opened PMQs by paying condolences to three British servicemen killed in Iraq; “I am truly sorry about the dangers they face. Some think they face these dangers in vain. I don’t, and I never will”.
This didn’t do enough to satisfy Jeremy Corbyn, who from the backbenches asked when will British troops will finally be withdrawn from Iraq? Corbyn claimed that the British people want withdrawal, and in the US “only a presidential veto is blocking a similar call from the Senate”. “We will not beat them by giving in to them, we will only beat them by standing up to them,” responded Blair.
Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron was much more forgiving in his tribute; “On behalf of everyone on these Benches, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his remarkable achievement of being Prime Minister for 10 years? For all the heated battles across the Dispatch Box, for 13 years he has led his party, for 10 years he has led our country, and no one can be in any doubt about the huge efforts he has made in public service. He has considerable achievements to his credit, whether it is peace in Northern Ireland or his work in the developing world, which will endure.”
Then Alan Williams, the Father of the House, rose to claim Blair had been “… the most effective prime minister Labour has ever had, leading Labour out of the wilderness and into 10 years of government … Under him, Labour has become the natural party of government”.
In a sign of things to come for the Tories, Nicholas Winterton complained about Britain being drawn into the “suffocating quicksand of the European Union” – demanding a referendum to enable the people to decide. Astutely, Blair jibed that Cameron should be worried about the anti EU sentiment and the large Tory cheers for his referendum call. “I really believe that if I were the leader of the Conservative party I would be worried about that” before adding “Au revoir, auf wiedersehen and arrivederci”.
Perhaps it was the Reverend Ian Paisley who struck the most important note; “I disagreed with him about many things, but we faced them. I am glad that I can stand here today and say to the Prime Minister that the people of Northern Ireland felt the same way as him—they were angry and cross, lost their tempers and were sad—but we made progress”.
As he stood at the dispatch box Blair had the packed chamber, and the country, spellbound for the final time:
“I have never pretended to be the greatest House of Commons man but I can pay the house the greatest compliment I can by saying that from the first until the last I have never stopped fearing it. The tingling apprehension I felt at three minutes to 12 today I felt as much 10 years ago and every bit as acute. It is in that fear that respect is retained.
“Some may belittle politics but we know it is where people stand tall. And although I know it has its many harsh contentions, it is still the arena which sets the heart beating fast. It may sometimes be a place of low skullduggery but it is more often a place for more noble causes. I wish everyone, friend or foe, well and that is that, the end.”
David Cameron, who along with George Osborne, had promised to be the ‘Heir to Blair’ – stood up and urged his party to join the Labour ranks in a standing ovation. Cameron knew that Labour had just lost their most successful leader of all time, and it made fighting the next election a lot easier.
That afternoon Nick Robinson reported “The House of Commons goes ‘hear, hear’, remember, it doesn’t clap. If it claps, it doesn’t stand for an ovation. It did both of those things for Tony Blair. On all sides, MPs of all colours got to their feet spontaneously and applauded him as he walked out of the chamber, ending a Question Time quite unlike the one I suspect he was prepared for, and quite unlike the one that his backbenchers desperately wanted to see.”
As he left the chamber, several Labour MPs were in tears, including Margaret Beckett, Jacqui Smith and Phil Woolas, who claimed “It was like a wedding and a funeral rolled into one.”
In The Sun’s final day verdict on Blair, Trevor Kavanagh, who is now a fierce critic of the New Labour era , wrote “Even today, battered by recriminations over Iraq, millions of supporters will be sorry to see him go. Others will see him as being preoccupied with the trappings of power and bored by the grinding work of government. Political allies and impartial analysts predict history is likely to be kinder to a man who tried to do his best. My forecast is that his failures, real and imagined, will soon be forgotten or forgiven. Voters will miss his sunny smile, his easy style and his “Aw, shucks” self-effacement”.
The European press lamented his exit from the world stage. Germany’s Die Welt praised Blair for having made “the Labour Party electable. He brought it into the centre of society and established it there. That’s an impressive accomplishment.”
The Paris’ Liberation newspaper claimed: “There are more billionaires in Britain than before, but also much less poverty…It’s easy to find a job on the well-functioning job market… No British government had ever invested so much in the public sector, especially in education. Tony Blair, the liberal, further developed the market economy while simultaneously strengthening the instruments of solidarity”
In the week Blair left office, a MORI/Observer poll provided the final monthly satisfaction ratings for Blair. 33% said they were satisfied with him, compared with 60% who expressed dissatisfaction – a net figure of -27%. At the moment Theresa May’s favourability stands at -50 with YouGov, whilst Blair’s have regressed to -56.
Back then, Alan Johnson, a key Blairite, proved to be the most popular choice for next leader, with a rating of -7 while Brown remained at -32%. On a national scale one poll showed Labour on 39%, to the Tories 36% with the Lib Dems on 15%.
As for the opposition, they didn’t even try to hide their admiration for Blair. Such was the success of Labour, that by 2007, George Osborne was forced to match Labour on public spending. Seen as a political masterstroke, Osborne claimed “under a Conservative government, there will be real increases in spending on public services, year after year”.
The Tories had no choice but to detoxify their party. Such was their commitment, Osborne promised ‘Any reduction we offer in one tax will have to be matched by a tax rise elsewhere’. For a party famed for cutting taxes, Blair had dragged them kicking and screaming to the new centre ground.
When Brown took office, the public were ready for a change, but the ‘New Labour’ brand was not toxic. The day before Blair resigned, Labour secured the defection of Tory MP Quentin Davies. In a scathing attack on the Tories, the party he’d been a member of for 20 years, he told Cameron ‘”Although you have many positive qualities you have three – superficiality, unreliability and an apparent lack of any clear convictions, which in my view ought to exclude you from the position of national leadership to which you aspire”. The Telegraph reported it as a severe blow to the Cameron project.
Labour seemed to be the natural party of government, and had Brown called an early election, who knows what position the country would be in now. But he didn’t. And by December 2007, Brown’s honeymoon had ended. YouGov showed the Tories with a 13 point lead at 45% to Labour’s 32%. The same poll showed that 45% of voters believed Brown was less competent than Blair.
When Blair published his memoirs in 2010, 57% of the British public thought he was ‘likeable’ while 41% of people though he was a ‘fairly’ or ‘very good’ PM. However, in a sign of the divisions to come, 62% of people identified his biggest crime as ‘allowing immigration to rise to unacceptable levels’.
Now, a decade on from leaving Number 10, his public standing is lower than ever. His intervention on Brexit has been greeted with great joy by the leavers and we cannot underestimate how much anti-Blair sentiment factored in the minds of leave voters.
What did the public want from Blair after leaving office? It would have been very difficult for him to campaign on any domestic issues without undermining the Labour leadership and he did not interfere during the disastrous Brown and Miliband years.
He became the UN’s ‘Middle East Envoy’ and worked to bring peace to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Does the lack of progress in the Middle East justify the hatred towards him? Perhaps it does for some. Perhaps it is the perception that he has used his contacts within those regimes to make money for himself. Since leaving, the press have painted a narrative of Blair as a ruthless capitalist, amassing an obscene £100m fortune, none of which has been substantially rebuffed Blair.
In 2015 he claimed he wasn’t worth “a half of that, a third of that, a quarter of that, a fifth of that. I could go on’. For Labour voters, who have seen the working class rely on food banks and suffer an unprecedented squeeze on daily living standards, the thought of Blair making millions and travelling the world in private jets is too much to bare.
With few allies remaining in the commentariat, the negative image has been allowed to fester. The left, right and centre appear to be united on only one issue in modern politics – their loathing of Blair and his crooked millions. This hatred of his personal wealth has affected our judgement on his time in office.
Conveniently, many on the left do not extend their anger towards Tony Benn, who amassed a £5 million fortune, without leaving a single penny to charitable or political causes.
Like Blair, Benn had amassed a portfolio of expensive London property – and didn’t want the state to tax his wealth too much. After his wife died, Tony Benn passed on his assets to his children, in order to minimise the inheritance tax burden, and save them a fortune. Benn was well within his right to do this – but its time Labour members cut Blair some slack too.
Blair had always astutely understood that it is much harder for Labour politicians to gain a fair hearing in the press, ‘I don’t like it, it’s just the way it is’ he wrote in his autobiography. The fact that the sources and extent of Blair’s wealth are impossible to identify only adds to this scepticism in the within the party and the media. He made a big mistake in not challenging and defending his legacy earlier.
In a recent New Statesman interview, Blair said that he will now focus on his charitable and not-for-profit work. The £8m he has in reserve from the ‘Tony Blair Association’ is to be gifted to the not-for-profit work. Not many people will be willing to listen, and Britain is all the poorer for that.
On the day of him leaving office, The Economist wrote
On most measures, Mr Blair has left Britain a better place than it was in 1997 (see article). Uninterrupted economic growth has made the average Briton substantially better off, even if the tax burden has risen. There are fewer tatty schools and run-down hospitals. Although many exams lack rigour, more children are getting respectable grades and going on to universities. Thanks to the minimum wage and tax credits for poor working families, the forces relentlessly pushing up income inequality under Margaret Thatcher have been blunted.
These things are measurable; less easy to prove, but just as valuable, are the ways in which Mr Blair has helped make Britain a more tolerant, more cosmopolitan place. There is a human-rights act now; civil partnerships for homosexuals are recognised. Self-government for Scotland, Wales and now even Northern Ireland has extended democracy: peace in Ulster must rank among Mr Blair’s greatest successes.
We have lost sight of these achievements, and as a party we have been too eager to swallow the media narrative that Blair only stood for illegal wars and privatisation. Perhaps the changes Blair engineered were too weak to survive Tory austerity, and he did not radically transform the state like Attlee did.
But when Blair left Number 10 all those years ago, he’d won three elections in a row and shifted the Tory party towards the new centre ground. Cameron’s best attack on Blair was for his over reliance on spin doctors, advisors and ‘Quangos’ – for which he promised a ‘Bonfire’ when elected.
As we approach another year of unparalleled political anxiety, a country with an over reliance on Quangos doesn’t seem like a bad place to be.