POLITICS

Tony Blair's 4 Ways Back To Frontline Politics - But Should He Come Back At All?

Do you want to see him back?

02/05/2017 15:37

David Cameron once claimed Britain and Twitter are not the same thing, and Tony Blair must be hoping he is right.

If the social media network is to be believed, there are only two views of the former Prime Minister: a lying, war-monger who despite winning three elections actually destroyed the Labour Party; or an unstoppable vote-winning machine whose every utterance should be treated with the reverence of a deity.

The former view seems to be more prevalent than the latter, and Blair himself acknowledged he would be hit by a “bucket of wotsit” on his return to politics.

It may be that no matter what Blair does or says, he is too tainted by his time in office to ever earn a respectful hearing for his views.

That being said, Blair’s recent wave of post-Chilcot inquiry interventions has made it clear he’s become increasingly keen to re-shape his legacy as some sort of anti-Brexit saviour, giving him four possible return routes to frontline politics: 

Could he come back to Labour?

MICHEL GANGNE via Getty Images
Tony Blair arrives in Downing Street after storming to victory in the 1997 General Election.

One thing is clear: his tribal loyalty to Labour is waning.

During the 2015 leadership contest, Blair described himself as “Labour through and through” as he urged party members claiming their “heart” was with Jeremy Corbyn to “get a transplant.”

At the same event, he claimed that even if Corbyn’s left-wing agenda was popular with the voters “I wouldn’t take it…it wouldn’t take the country forward, it would take it backwards.”

Blair has been clear since even before Day 1 of Corbyn’s leadership: this is not his Labour Party.

His pronouncements only got clearer after the snap election was called. On April 23 he called for voters to return as many MPs with an “open mind” on the Brexit deal as possible. When pressed, he admitted that could mean backing Lib Dem or even Tory candidates.

This kind of disloyalty to the party he once lead is unlikely to be forgotten – especially by the Corbynites. How can the Blairites attack, for example, Corbyn’s spokesman James Schneider for voting Green in 2015 when Blair himself is advocating backing Tory candidates at this election?

Indeed, even if Corbyn is deposed after an election defeat, his replacement is unlikely to want to let Blair back into the fold based on these comments alone.

Likelihood: 5/10 

Could he join the Lib Dems?

Leon Neal via Getty Images

Seven months ago, Tim Farron and Tony Blair met to discuss Brexit, and the ex-PM admits he now has “more in common” with the Lib Dems on Brexit than Labour.

So could Blair be about to cross the floor and join the Lib Dems?

As Blair’s biographer John Rentoul frequently says on Twitter, this is a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No.)

The Lib Dems have made great hay over the years attacking Blair’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and were also more than happy to repeat Tory attack lines about Labour’s economic record during their 13 years in power.

How could those positions been maintained if Blair was suddenly in the party? The Lib Dems have enough trouble defending their own record in Government, let alone taking on Blair’s as well.

Likelihood: 3/10

Could he form a new party?

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(From left) William Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen, known as the Gang of Four, launch the Social Democrat Party in 1981.

The most tantalising prospect is Blair forming a new party. Here, there is a precedent. In 1981, another Labour statesman who found himself at odds with his party over Europe decided a new party was needed to revitalise centre-ground politics. Roy Jenkins, along with three other prominent Labour figures, formed the Social Democratic Party, and attracted 29 MPs to its new banner (28 Labour, one Tory).

There is a possibility that Blair could repeat the trick, and gather the support of even more MPs. Should Corbyn lose the election by a landslide but refuse to step aside, many moderate Labour MPs may begin to fear they have lose their party for good.

If the so-called McDonnell amendment passes at Labour conference in the Autumn, making it easier for MPs to get on the leadership ballot for future elections, the far-left’s take over of the party will be complete.

One high-profile Labour MP has already suggested to me they believe this is the moment the moderates will have to decide whether to abandon ship, and the rescue boat could come in the form of a new party created by – or along with - Blair.

Unlike Jenkins, it is unlikely the ex-PM will seek re-election to Parliament or want the leadership, but he would be able to guarantee the ‘new-SDP’ hours of broadcast time and acres of print coverage.

But forming a new party is a Herculean task – and is why so few attempt it. You need to sort out an internal structure, a policy platform, constituency groups, staff, a headquarters, funding and so on.

Some of this may come from defecting Labour members – as with the SDP in the 1980s – but putting the flesh on the bones of a party can take years.

The SDP only lasted seven years, and in 1988 formalised its electoral alliance with the Liberals to create the Liberal Democrats.

Likelihood: 7/10

Could he create a cross-party alliance? 

PA Archive/PA Images

The most likely form of Blair’s return – and the one he seems to be already pursuing – is an alliance of pro-Europeans coming together to take on Brexit.

If Blair’s sole motivation is stop the UK leaving the EU, he could actually take some lessons from Nigel Farage and Ukip.

With practically zero parliamentary representation in its 24-year history, Ukip managed to force a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and ultimately played played a significant role in getting a Leave vote last year.

Blair could adopt what worked well for Farage – a clear message, grassroots campaigning, reviving town hall meetings – in order to bring together pro-EU campaigners. These could then place pressure on their MPs, and support those willing to back the UK staying in the EU - or at least advocating a soft Brexit.

This approach has already been trialled by former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown through his “More United” group – but having Blair’s support would raise its profile drastically.

This approach strips out the constraints of acting in a political party structure (“What’s your policy on Syria? What’s your policy on housing?”), allowing a clear, single issue to receive maximum focus.

The problems, however, are clear. In a seat where Labour and the Lib Dems put up anti-Brexit candidates, who does it support? Would it support anti-Brexit Tory candidates such as Anna Soubry, who are representing a pro-Brexit party?

In many ways, this is the ‘something must be done and this is something’ solution - but it is the way Blair could perform something of a come back with minimal effort.

Likelihood: 8/10

No comeback 

Matthew Lloyd via Getty Images

For all his talk in recent weeks, it may be that having looked over the edge, Blair decides not to take the leap.

He will turn 64 on May 6, and could quite easily slip into retirement without the stresses and strains that come with being on the political frontline.

His ‘Institute for Global Change’ may well bear the brunt of his attention, as it enables Blair to formulate policies without the need of selling them to the public through elections or alliances.

And it is selling to the public that may be the ultimate barrier to Blair returning to frontline politics. A YouGov poll published in May 2016 showed 53% of those surveyed “can never forgive Tony Blair for what I think he did wrong.”

Likelihood: 8/10

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