Blair is back to give Ed a headache

Not to put too fine a point on things, Tony is pissed off.

Tony Blair is back. The Middle East is aflame, the coalition floundering. Whatever your view of Labour's polarising former premier, he hasn't lost his sense of political timing.

"Blair the 'back-seat driver' tells Ed Miliband to up his game", reported the Sunday Telegraph. "The former prime minister has told Mr Miliband he has risked cheapening his role by intervening too often on too many relatively trivial issues."

Miliband was no doubt delighted with the advice. As Nick Clegg grapples the Monster Raving Loony Party for political survival – and David Cameron strides on to the international stage with all the gravitas and judgement of Dr Strangelove – Labour's current leader needs his predecessor popping up like he needs a hole in the head.

Attempts to brush off Sunday's briefing as part of a "regular" series of conversations between the two men have fooled no one. Blair is, not to put too fine a point on things, pissed off. He's angry at Miliband's apparent junking of New Labour. He's even angrier at attempts to tarnish his legacy with what he sees as misrepresentation of his efforts to bring Muammar al-Gaddafi into the international mainstream.

And he's most angry at what he regards as an effort to use the "Arab spring" as a further stick to beat him, his Iraq policy and his broader policy of progressive interventionism.

Ed Miliband's team believe this anger is now being channelled into a co-ordinated Blairite fightback. Jack Straw, Peter Mandelson, David Miliband and Jim Murphy have all made recent high-profile interventions defending Blair and his foreign affairs record and philosophy. "We know what's going on," said one Miliband supporter. "We're not stupid."

Claims in the Telegraph article that Blair was responsible for recent improvements in Milband's performance and standing have been met with bewilderment. "It would be ludicrous to pretend this is all down to Tony – the unpopularity of the government's spending cuts obviously plays a major role – but Ed is always happy to listen to his advice," said a leadership source.

Those close to the Blairite camp see things somewhat differently. According to supporters of the former leader, Ed Miliband is becoming increasingly nervous at his failure to build a proper support base within the party. "Last time Ed spoke to Tony he wanted his help and advice in shoring up his position," one said. "It's taking much longer to bring people round than Ed anticipated."

There are also frustrations among a number of Blairite supporters with what they see as Miliband's failure to build on his recent tactical success. "The coalition keeps screwing up, and we keep hitting them. But we're not building an alternative case for why people should back Labour. Our only argument is 'at least we're not the Tories or the Lib Dems'."

Yet differing emphases over the response to the tumultuous events in the Middle East are creating the most significant tensions. Miliband's team fervently believes there is no appetite among the voters for further international adventurism. "Even if we wanted to get involved in Libya, the public won't wear it," said one source.

This sits in stark contrast to the interventionist instincts of some members of his own shadow cabinet. At a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London on Thursday, Jim Murphy issued a veritable call to arms. "Britain can and should play an important part in shaping world events and trends, with our armed forces its heart," he urged.

That Britain should have responsibilities beyond her borders, he said, was "not, as some would have it, ideological, but, as we have seen over the last few days, a necessary response to the world in which we live. This is a challenge for the Labour Party. Opposition is about proving your preparedness to engage with the issues you would have to in government if it is to be responsible and ultimately electorally credible."

Compare that to an article Miliband wrote for the Observer four days earlier and the difference in emphasis is striking. He wrote:

The neocons were wrong to think we could impose democracy at the point of a gun. In this new era, soft power will often be a better way to achieve hard results. That is why support for civil society, the promotion of national assets such as the British Council and the BBC World Service, is so important. Our template should be the EU's response to the democratic revolutions of 1989 which helped make change in eastern Europe irreversible, with economic aid, technical assistance and institution-building.

The crisis in the Middle East has forced Miliband to sit down at the chessboard of foreign policy rather earlier in his leadership than he would have liked. Because of that, he has yet to formulate a settled policy agenda.

But he does have one simple rule: avoid getting into the mess Blair got himself into.

It's not a foreign affairs credo the former leader and his supporters are likely to warm to.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.