A Boris Johnson-led government will defeat Labour at the next election if the party retains Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘revolutionary’ politics, Tony Blair has warned.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, the former prime minister said Johnson was a “formidable campaigner” who could only be beaten by a moderate alternative that appealed to Tory voters worried about Brexit.
Blair added The Independent Group of MPs’ new Change UK party could do well in any European Parliament elections because there was a mass of the public ”who don’t feel very satisfied by either political party”.
As the Commons prepared for another round of votes on Brexit, he also warned MPs against “snatching at a solution like the customs union” this week and urged a long extension of the Article 50 process for quitting the EU to allow parliament to draft proposals for a second referendum.
In the interview, Blair:
- said it may only take ‘a few months’ for parliament to come up with a form of Brexit could be put to the public in a fresh vote
- warned Tory MPs should fear the six million people who signed the recent petition to halt Brexit and the million who marched against it
- predicted the UK would be unlikely to ever rejoin the EU once it had left
- said the Conservatives would be ‘certifiable’ to push for a general election and Theresa May should remain as PM
- suggested the Labour Party could only change direction with an influx of new centrist members
May fired the starting gun on the Tory leadership race last week when she announced she would quit No.10 once the UK had ‘divorced’ from the EU and started the next phase of the Brexit talks with Brussels.
Johnson, as well as Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock and Jeremy Hunt are among the ministers jockeying for the top job.
Blair warned that if Johnson became Tory leader Labour would have a serious problem, unless it changed course.
“If you have a Boris Johnson led Conservative Party, he’s a formidable campaigner, he’s an interesting personality, he can get out there and do his stuff, for sure,” he said.
“But you’ve got to be in the position as a Labour Party, where you’re offering a sensible, coherent alternative that is different and progressive.
“I have absolutely no doubt that if you have a right-wing populism against a left-wing populism in this country, the right-wing will win. So it depends where we [Labour] stand.
“If we stand in a reasonable position, where you have many Conservative voters voters that will feel repelled by a Boris Johnson premiership, particularly after the part he’s played in Brexit, but you’ve got to be in a position where those people feel it’s safe to vote for you.
“You suddenly offer them a revolutionary alternative from the Left, what makes you think the people who voted Tory are suddenly going to go for that? It’s a bizarre analysis of their psyche.”
A new Mail on Sunday opinion poll put Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party five points ahead of the Tories, fuelling hopes from his supporters that a snap election could bring at least a minority government.
But Blair, who has insisted he will stay in Labour despite the rise of the breakaway The Independent Group (TIG) of MPs, said both main parties would pay a price if they were seen as complicit in a chaotic Brexit.
“I honestly think you will find at next general election, whenever that comes, I’m not sure the form this will take but I think people are going to want to sweep away those who are responsible for this. I really think there will be an enormous reckoning and retribution,” he said.
If MPs vote to delay Brexit beyond April 12, they will have to seek permission from Brussels and then arrange for UK participation in the European Parliament elections on May 22.
The TIG MPs, which this week announced they would be contesting any Euro elections in May as the ‘Change UK’ party, could benefit, Blair said.
“They will get support I should think. It’s hard to judge and they are very new. If the two main parties stay the Labour Party with a far left position…and the Tories retreat into this narrow laager of right-wing nationalism, you’ve got a large amount of territory that’s uninhabited.
“And The Independent Group have moved into it. OK, they are not large in number, but there’s a big lot of people in the country right now who don’t feel very satisfied by either political party. This is clear.
“There’s going to be a lot more interest in them than ever before if they [the European elections] happen… I don’t think we should be terrified of the thought of having the European elections.”
Blair praised MPs for taking control of the parliamentary Brexit process, warning that it was “both dangerous and profoundly wrong” the way May had tried to mobilise the public against MPs.
“The fact is they haven’t been allowed to do this until parliament gripped the process. But this is pretty rushed and I really counsel against this week snatching at a solution like the customs union and voting that through because believe me it needs a lot more in-depth analysis and information.”
The ex-PM said MPs should focus on voting for a long extension to the formal Article 50 process that governs the UK’s timing of exit from the EU.
“The best solution [is] to have a proper extension where we can with time and space run through the various options on Brexit, get parliament to come to a conclusion where we can decide the final say is given to the people or not.
“I don’t think it need take even as long as a year. It could happen within a few months. You might request a longer extension with the ability to shorten it.
“I think the psychology of parliament will shift in a very clear way if the government then grips the indicative vote process and if the prime minister becomes the facilitator, the arbiter, the referee if you like of this process.”
Blair added that it would be a mistake if the Tories changed prime minister during Brexit and then sought a general election.
“I know this is today’s politics and everything’s a little mad but you would have to be certifiable as a Conservative MP to want a general election in circumstances where you would be fighting it under the shadow of Brexit,” he said.
“You see that [anti-Brexit] march and it’s a very reasonable group of people, particularly if you’re a Tory prime minister. The six million who signed the petition [to revoke Article 50] is in a sense even as important as the march. That’s a lot of people.”
Asked if the UK would ever rejoin the EU in his lifetime, once it had left, he replied: “My instinct is it wouldn’t.
“The trouble is once you come out of Europe you relationship with them changes in a significant way. Our relationship will be very much one of supplicant and they will be anxious all the time that we are trying to steal competitive advantage in some way and it will just become a scratchy and difficult relationship.”
On the future of Labour, its former leader suggested that centrists could only take back the party by recruiting a more centrist membership.
“I don’t see what other route there is. You can’t coexist for a long time with a membership in a different position from the members of parliament. That can happen for a short time but not over time.”
Blair was also very sceptical about US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal plan, which seeks to tackle climate change by injecting an economic stimulus to the US economy.
“She’s an extremely interesting and articulate and dynamic person, that’s for sure. The problem is there are two types of politics in the end. There’s the politics that is the politics of protest and there’s the politics of government. And sometimes the one can lead to other, but they have a different spirit to them,” he said.
“The Green New Deal is raising the issue that needs to be raised. But if you actually look at the detail of it, I think they’re [the Democrats] going to find they’ll really struggle if you’re a Presidential candidate and you’re signed up to it.
“Because you’re talking about making the US economy carbon-free in ten years and not doing by market mechanisms. When you look at the implications of that, it’s massive and I’m not sure it’s practical.
“And this is part of the modern populism, left and right, it’s a bit like being in a room of people where I’m having a reasonable conversation with you and then someone in another part of the room is throwing crockery on the wall and jumping up on the table and shouting.
“If you walk into that room, who’s more interesting? Me and you having a reasonable conversation or the person setting the room on fire? But in the end it’s not government. Government is about difficult decisions, it’s about practical solutions.”
Blair suggested that the leftward shift of the Democrats would not lead to their revival.
“You can see this in the United States with the Democrats, you can see it all over the western world today. There is a constituency for a revived form of traditional socialism. There’s no doubt about that. But I’m not sure that that constituency will hang in there very long, once they start to realise that actually it doesn’t provide answers to the problems of the country,” he said.
“It’s interesting you have this curious alliance both sides of the Atlantic between an older generation that have been arguing for a politics that has been out of fashion all their lives and suddenly is in fashion, unified with a young and highly committed and energised group of people who see in them people of principle and want to be part of that. They’ve created this new coalition. I don’t think it’s very well grounded ultimately.”