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I'm Sorry Tony, But You Had Your Chance

02/05/2017 10:09
Bloomberg via Getty Images

"A new dawn has broken has it not?". Tony Blair, exactly 20 years ago today, heralded what for many seemed truly to be the end of an era, and that start of a better one. In that victory, 'New Labour' (as it was then) swept aside 18 years of Conservative rule (or misrule depending on how you see the Thatcher and Major years). Only thee Labour leaders have ever led the party to victory: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and, of course, Tony Blair. But now, two decades after that initial political earthquake, Tony Blair has given the strongest signal yet that he intends to make a "return" to frontline politics. But it is, I think, a mistake to assume that Tony Blair is the panacea the Labour Party needs. The fact that Tony Blair won a hat-trick of elections must be remembered, but this must be reconciled with the fact of Blair's decade-long absence from British politics. Seemingly undeterred by Labour's leftward lurch under Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair has decided that he, and not the current vanguard of the party he once led, can mount an opposition to Brexit.

Blair did indeed win three elections in a row for Labour, but he also became deeply estranged from the party not long after the third of these. Tony Blair's return to frontline politics would be akin to Margaret Thatcher rising from the dead and grabbing the Tory Party by the scruff of its neck. Simply put, Blair has too much baggage, and too few friends in the current Labour Party, to cast himself convincingly as the "comeback kid". The crucial difference, I think, between 1997 and today is that the bonds of trust that wedded the country to Tony Blair and New Labour from 1997 until the Iraq War, are gone. This is to me a political fact, a political fact with inescapable conclusions.

It is not only the British people who seemingly hold Tony Blair in utter contempt, but large swathes of the party which, in 1997, he galvanised and united. The bonds between Blair and his party, burnished by the heady successes of 20 years ago, are gone. I remember vividly watching as Jeremy Corbyn assumed the mantle of democratic socialism to the rapturous reception of the party faithful, and thinking: "So this is how New Labour dies, with thunderous applause". The election of Jeremy Corbyn was the last nail in the New Labour coffin. How then, subject to this background and these conditions, could Tony Blair ever hope to anything more than a force for disunity and division within the current Labour Party? Blair would be utterly at odds with the current Labour Party. Which party leader, Corbynite or otherwise, would provide a platform to someone who is by all accounts the most hated man in British politics. Which constituency party would select Blair as their candidate in this upcoming election? Who would provide Blair with any ability to "take back control" (so to speak) of the Labour Party.

This option, insofar as it ever did exist, is no longer open to Tony Blair. To return then as some latter day Roy Jenkins? To form a rehashed version of SDP, touted as some sort of 'Stop Brexit' alliance? Such a move would entirely fragment the left, reopening once more the cracks, barely papered over at this point, within the Labour Party. The way to stop Brexit is surely not to fragment the Left any further. This country needs an opposition of course, but I do not think for one second that Tony Blair can be the white knight of this opposition, this agglomeration of the 48%. This would not be the 'Progressive Alliance' on steroids, nor would it be the SDP+++. If the actions of the Gang of Four have taught us anything, it's that dividing the opposition to Tory rule in this country will only serve to prolong the very thing it would seek to avoid. Simply put, a split in the left now is the difference between a Conservative majority of 100, and a Conservative majority of 200.

What the country needs is a united opposition, and I do not believe that Tony Blair is the person to bring about this unity. The trust of Blair, both within the Labour movement and without, is too damaged. Tony Blair had his opportunity to shape Britain for better or for worse, and this was forsaken. Tony Blair's time has passed.

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