NEWS

Tony Blair's Big Brexit Speech: How The Former PM Started His Comeback Tour

Analysis of how the ex-PM got the Remainers rocking again.

17/02/2017 16:51 | Updated 17 February 2017

For the rapt audience in Bloomberg’s hi-tech conference room, this was as close as it gets to political Nirvana.

And like fans of an ageing rock star kicking off his comeback tour, the Labour, Lib Dem and City slicker Remainers couldn’t take their eyes off their hero.

The feeling of getting the band back together again was evident from the gaggle of former Downing Street aides gathered for the big gig.

Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Formidable former No.10 ‘gatekeeper’ Anji Hunter was in the house. Alastair Campbell tweeted his approval, warning Brexiteers against “shooting the messenger”.

Ex-political operations director John McTernan yelped his delight at key applause lines. When the performance was over, Nita Clarke, Blair’s former assistant political secretary, summed up the groupie-style mood with just two words: “At LAST!”

For Blair’s admirers, and there were also several Labour MPs in the audience, that sense of relief was palpable. The years had indeed melted away faster than a globally-warmed polar ice-cap. Memories of his three general election triumphs felt like yesterday.

Up on stage, the man who famously liked to jam on his electric guitar in No.10 (Bono and Bryan Adams had given him Fenders as gifts) was playing his solo like an old pro.

Owen Humphreys/PA Archive
Blair in his heyday

Blair referenced his greatest hits: saving the NHS, investing in education and, most of all, his centre-ground mission to combine a strong economy with social justice.

Yet like most rock stars resurrecting their career, the former PM wanted to play some new tunes. And they had a distinct Europop flavour, as he warned that Theresa May’s ‘hard Brexit’ would lead us all over “the cliff edge”. 

As for his difficult third album, Iraq Attack, he decided not to reheat it, save for a line that he knew his comeback would trigger a “volley of abuse” from those who no longer believe a word he says.

The speech was indeed vintage Mr Tony.  His zinger aimed at Jeremy Corbyn - “the debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit” - read more like a song lyric than the leaden prose most politicians prefer.

That line, yoking a left-wing Corbyn with a right-wing media in the referendum blame game, was also cleverly left out of the pre-briefed, overnight extracts. He knew the dual attack would run as a ‘Day Two’ story. And it was a key part of the story leading the TV bulletins.

Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Jeremy Corbyn

Love him or loathe him (and many fall into the latter category), having run the country for 10 years, Blair carries the authority of someone who knows what makes Governments tick – what takes up Whitehall time.

And in a speech full of bite and barely-concealed anger, he made the point that the Tory Government is drowning in Brexit prep. “Governments’ priorities are not really defined by white papers or words; but by the intensity of focus,” he said.

“This Government has bandwidth only for one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.” Again, there was the lyrical lilt, with the barb of the words the bitter counterpoint.  His new phrase for ‘Hard Brexit’, a ‘Brexit At Any Cost’, could turn into an effective rhetorical weapon.

On the NHS, he gently ridiculed the infamous £350m Vote Leave bus boast, but also reminded his audience that the health service was “now in its most severe crisis since its creation”.

However, it was immigration that Blair wanted to focus on most. And it was on immigration he was at his most acid, effectively warning May that millions of Leave voters (and many of them Labour voters) would feel betrayed when they realised Brexit had not delivered cuts in non-EU (and let’s be honest, non-white) migration.  

And even though there may be a small drop in EU migrants, that won’t miraculously deliver new jobs, he claimed.

Philip Toscano/PA Archive
Nigel Farage and his infamous poster

He said that future historians would find that EU incomers to the UK were not “a terrible group of people who threatened the country’s stability” but were instead “well behaved, worked hard, paid their taxes and were a net economic benefit”. It was a positive case for immigration that few, including David Cameron, dared make in last year’s referendum campaign.

Yet he also appeared to flirt with calls for curbs to non-EU immigration, especially when it came from “different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue”.

He didn’t utter the word ‘Muslim’ (just as he didn’t utter the words ‘second referendum’), but that section of the speech didn’t sound a million miles from Trump’s travel ban. He even cited the infamous Nigel Farage poster depicting a queue of Syrian refugees. In the immigration passage alone, Blair gave a perfect example of how he can both attract and repel the same group of voters.

One of his most radical suggestions was that May should include in her Brexit negotiation “the possibility of Britain staying in a reformed Europe”.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
David Cameron in Brussels

Cameron tried that one and the EU failed to deliver, so it’s hard to see how it would work now. Yet given that Blair recently met European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, had he been given such clues in private?

His most powerful attack lines were on the economy, with a clear signal that the UK was sleepwalking into leaving the EU, thinking everything would be fine. As he spoke, new retail sales figures turned out to be dire, and were seized on by some as the first canary coughing down the Brexit coalmine.

It was by any measure, a cleverly-crafted speech. Even one leading Brexiteer texted me to say: “Blair giving the speech Cameron never did”.  That source quickly added that it was in fact a speech that tried to re-write history to “portray opponents as extreme, while making quite a radical position sound like the centre ground”.

Still, the sense of relief that someone had finally (’At LAST!’) made a cogent case for staying in the EU – albeit eight months after the actual vote – undoubtedly hung in the air.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Blair and Jean-Claude Juncker

Even the location was cannily chosen, the financial media giant’s offices allowing a neat bookend to a volatile period started by Cameron’s own ‘Bloomberg speech’ - when he caved to backbench and UKIP pressure to announce the referendum back in 2013.

The timing too appeared canny, picking a quiet Friday during half-term, on the same day as the UKIP spring conference.

But less than a week before the by-elections in Brexit-loving Copeland or Stoke, you can bet the Corbynistas will be blaming Blair if either seat falls. No wonder one source close to the current leader said: “People voted Leave precisely because they felt let down by 13 years of the Davos leftism he is still trying to flog.”

In the Q&A afterwards, the years since he left No10 disappeared once more as he showed how to take a mini-press conference. And it was a reminder of the monthly, take-all-comers, 50-minute briefings he once held at Downing Street, something Cameron and May have never dared.

Wasn’t he the man who caused Brexit, by letting in all the Poles? He replied that he effectively just brought forward what would have happened anyway.

ENRICO OLIVERIO/AP
Blair at his first EU summit in 1997

How could he claim to know what the voters really thought, when he hadn’t been on a doorstep for years? Blair replied that was true, but said Labour MPs like Pat McFadden (at his side) were very much on the doorstep and agreed with him.

Was he going to launch a new political party? No. This was just a ‘movement’.

The former PM was at his most cutting when directly addressing ‘the un-democratic thing’, as he characteristically called it, the claim that he wanted to ignore the will of the people on Brexit.

“The will of the people,” he said, “is not some fixed, immutable thing”, and changes when the facts change. In effect, he was suggesting that the referendum was not a final, era-defining decision. It was more like a general election, the verdict of which could easily be reversed by another general election.

That’s a tough sell, even for a man whose advocacy skills made him the best politician-lawyer of his generation, one who sold his Iraq case to a credulous Parliament (including to Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith, now his arch critics). He kept saying Brexit is not a “matter of mechanics”, but knew that it was also a matter of democracy – or how to define it.

Blair even rediscovered his gift for analogy, claiming the Leave vote was like a ‘house swap’. “They said ‘yep, we wanna swap our house’, but they hadn’t seen the other one.” 

Sounding like the Blair of old, complete with glottal stops and Estuary English, he added: “But here’s the thing. Now they’re gonna go ‘n’ see it. Now they are gonna to visit the neighbourhood.”

Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Tony Blair during his Brexit speech at Bloomberg HQ, London

The Remainers in the audience loved that bit, and laughed out loud. 

“The idea that in those circumstances, if they decide ‘I’m not really likin’ this neighbourhood’…they can’t change their mind? Who made that rule?” Cue more guffaws.  No wonder the crowd got excited at Blair’s tantalising hint that he was going to step up his trips to the political front line, to ‘build a movement with weight and reach’.

Trying to overturn a referendum verdict is the toughest of court briefs, even for this consummate barrister-turned-premier. Yet for many in the room, at least Blair made the case better than anyone else has so far.  There was a touch of poignancy, however, that it was all several months too late.

And the more relevant factor is that even on Blair’s own logic, the point at which the voters may only be convinced that Brexit is a bad thing is after it has happened.  It may be that the house swap will have gone ahead, the sale completed, before any genuine buyer’s remorse is felt.  

Of course, as with all Blair encounters, it is easy to be seduced by the ‘look in to my eyes, not around my eyes’ message. Indeed, the former Labour leader often sounds as if he’s seduced himself even more than others.

Non-partisan members in the audience may have been impressed by the sales pitch, yet still left the event wondering where their watch (or wallet) had gone. Memories of Iraq may mean today’s impressive performance was just too brittle, too late.

As the Remainer audience slowly departed from the windowless room in the bowels of Bloomberg, it was worth remembering that this was an impressively glitzy City bunker. But a bunker nevertheless.

Suggest a correction
281 Comments

CONVERSATIONS