Tony Blair has waded back into British politics by urging the public to “rise up” and change their mind on Brexit if Theresa May tries to quit the EU “at any cost”.
The former Labour Prime Minister is set to ramp up his personal opposition to a ‘Hard Brexit’ with a vow to find “a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge”.
He will also claim that voters are more worried about non-European migrants -who are ‘from different cultures’ and pose a ‘security threat’ - rather than EU citizens who more easily integrate into British communities.
In a speech in the City of London, Blair will hint that a second referendum or general election halting Brexit has to remain an option if May looks as though she will cause lasting damage to the UK’s economy.
At the event hosted by the campaign group Open Britain, he will:
* say the public have a “right to change their mind” about leaving the EU
* launch a scathing attack on May for abusing “the mantle of patriotism”
* claim that the referendum result was “based on imperfect knowledge”
* declare that “the immigration people most care about” is from non-EU areas like Africa and Asia
* warn that Brexit makes Scottish independence “more credible”
* suggest new border controls pose a risk to the Northern Ireland peace process
The former PM will not explicitly mention a second referendum, but HuffPost UK understands he won’t rule one out either. At present, the Liberal Democrats are the only national party to promise a second bite at the EU issue.
Perhaps aware of how damaged his reputation was by Iraq, Blair made just one high-profile intervention in the referendum campaign in 2016, appearing alongside Sir John Major to express worries about the break-up of the UK.
But since the Brexit vote - when 52% of the UK voted to leave the European Union - he has made clear he is prepared to speak out and get actively involved in moves to protect as much trade with the EU as possible.
He has scotched rumours that he wants to create a new political party to fill the gap in the centre-ground left by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
And he will on Friday promise to make it his “mission” in UK politics to stop a ‘Hard Brexit’, which pulls the UK out of the huge EU single market in goods and services and the tariff-free customs union.
In one of the most controversial lines of his speech at financial media firm Bloomberg, Blair will say that “the people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit”.
“As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so,” he will say.
“This is a Government for Brexit, of Brexit and dominated by Brexit. It is a mono-purpose political entity.
“Those driving this always wanted a Hard Brexit. Indeed even the term Hard Brexit requires amendment. The policy is now Brexit At Any Cost.”
Blair will say that the main challenge of those worried about quitting the EU is to “expose relentlessly the actual cost” and “to show how this decision was based on imperfect knowledge which will now become informed knowledge”.
He will urge pro-Europeans to “calculate in ‘easy to understand’ ways how proceeding will cause real damage to the country and its citizens and to build support for finding a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge”.
That line suggesting Leave voters didn’t ‘understand’ what they were voting for is sure to spark a backlash from pro-Brexit politicians and campaigners, but Blair will say the issue is too important to risk confusion.
“I don’t know if we can succeed. But I do know we will suffer a rancorous verdict from future generations if we do not try,” he will say.
And with an almost Churchillian flourish, he will add: “This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair; but the time to rise up in defence of what we believe.”
On immigration, he will also risk fresh controversy by suggesting that Britons are right to worry about non-European migrants ‘from different cultures’ bringing potential security threats.
Blair will hint that those who voted Leave will have a rude shock when they realise that non-EU migrants will not be barred from the UK after Brexit in 2019.
“It is immigration which is driving this debate and when we boil that down we reduce it to prevention of a fraction of the overall numbers,” he will say.
“There is in some parts of the country a genuine concern about numbers from Europe – real pressures on services and wages.
“But for many people, the core of the immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue - is immigration from non-European countries especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue.
“Nonetheless, we have moved in a few months from a debate about what sort of Brexit involving a balanced consideration of all the different possibilities; to the primacy of one consideration – namely controlling immigration from the EU – without any real discussion as to why and when Brexit doesn’t affect the immigration people most care about.
“Yet we’re told we have to stop debating it and just do it. This is a great country, with resilient and creative people. And yes, no one is going to write us off.
“But making the best of a bad job doesn’t alter the fact that it isn’t wise to put yourself in that position unless you have to.”
MPs voted overwhelmingly this month for the Government’s EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which will trigger the formal Article 50 talks on quitting the EU.
When the House of Lords approves the legislation next month, the Prime Minister will start the two-year process of Brexit.
The ex-PM will savage May’s own Tory party conference line that backers of globalisation and free trade are “citizens of nowhere”.
“How hideously, in this debate, is the mantle of patriotism abused. We do not argue for Britain in Europe because we are citizens of nowhere.
“We argue for it precisely because we are proud citizens of our country who believe that in the 21st Century, we should maintain our partnership with the biggest political union and largest commercial market right on our doorstep; not in diminution of our national interest, but in satisfaction of it.”
On the possibility of the break-up of the UK, he will say that it “is now back on the table but this time with a context much more credible for the independence case”.
“We are already seeing the de-stabilising impact of worry over border arrangements on the Northern Ireland peace process.
“None of this ignores the challenges the country faces in common with many other countries: those left behind by globalisation; the aftermath of the financial crisis; stagnant incomes amongst a section of the public; and for sure the pressures posed by big increases in migration which make perfectly reasonable people anxious and feeling unheard in their anxiety.”
The former PM, who was once a contender for European Council president, was in Brussels in January for private talks with Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Blair won three general elections, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, but his public popularity has been on the wane in recent years.
Last year, he wound up his commercial consultancy business and vowed to focus more on domestic issues.
He had to dampen speculation that he was hoping to make a possible comeback to Parliament, after telling Esquire magazine he was ready for a new challenge.
He told the magazine: “Do I feel strongly about it? Yes, I do. Am I very motivated by that? Yes. Where do I go from here? What exactly do I do? That’s an open question.”
A YouGov poll last year found Labour’s vote share would drop if Blair became party leader once more.
The party’s popularity would fall from 21% under Jeremy Corbyn to just 15%, with disaffected supporters opting for the Lib Dems and Greens instead.
Richard Tice, co-chair of the ‘Leave Means Leave’ campaign, said: “There is some irony that Tony Blair, a former prime minister who will forever be remembered for deceiving the British people, will try to resurrect his political corpse by trying to deceive the British people once again.”