A Blair-sized hole

As the Prime Minister prepares to depart these shores with his interfaith foundation, it may not be

After the initial fanfare of his departure announcement, Tony Blair intends to slip away quietly. Having delivered devolved government in Northern Ireland, he hopes to spend much of Labour's seven-week leadership election abroad: a G8 summit here, a European Council meeting there, plus a long-planned trip to Africa. When he finally leaves office at the end of June, the man who has dominated the British scene for more than a decade will disappear from front-line domestic politics altogether. As one aide put it to me: "I can assure you that once he has gone, he will not be popping up to talk about city academies."

Blair was advised - long before the difficult night of election results on 3 May - that to stick around, Thatcher-style, would be undignified. He is unlikely to appear at this year's Labour party conference for fear of upstaging his suc cessor. He could even stand down as MP for Sedgefield, the constituency he has represented since 1983. One local man is confident that he has been promised the seat. Others are waiting in the wings.

He will then throw himself into the work of the Blair Foundation, his new organisation devoted to a better understanding of interfaith relations, and, with characteristic hubris, into resolving conflict around the world. For better or worse, when he goes he will leave behind him a large empty space in Britain's public life: a gaping Blair-shaped hole, where the most successful leader in Labour's history once stood.

By the end of the summer, Tony Blair will definitively be gone. Not without a certain relief, he will wash his hands of the country that once embraced him as a Messiah and has now rejected him as a false prophet. The religious resonances of the situation will not be lost on Blair as he plans his interfaith foundation and sets off to cure the ills of the world. Much has been made of the Messianic nature of his politics, but the establishment of the new organisation, likely to be headed by the No 10 deputy chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, takes his faith-based approach to a new level. It will also mark a significant break with Britain. It is not too dramatic to say that we may not see him on these shores for some time.

No longer able to pursue his policy of humanitarian intervention as Prime Minister, he intends to develop it as a full-blown philosophy. One former adviser with knowledge of the new project said: "Precisely because of Iraq, it will be all too easy to delegitimise intervention. He will be consciously trying to rehabilitate his version of a liberal foreign policy."

The last time I suggested that the nation will be bereft when Blair departs, I was taken to task by many on the left for voicing such a treacherous thought. Speaking on Newsnight just after his final conference speech in Manchester last autumn, I dared to suggest that the Prime Minister had been correct in much of his analysis of totalitarian Islamist ideology. Yet, to many of my comrades, he is beyond redemption. In descending order of seriousness he is: a war criminal for Iraq, corrupt (as suggested by the cash-for- honours affair), and a Tory because of his love of the free market and his instinct for privatisation. I soon realised that such is the hostility towards him in some quarters that it was unacceptable to suggest that he might have been right about anything at all.

Blair-less Britain

Such has been the speculation in recent weeks about his exact departure date and about a possible challenge to Gordon Brown, that few have taken the time to wonder what a Britain without Blair will look like.

It is quite possible that those of us who have been the most critical of Blair and Blairism will miss him the most when he is gone, because he provides such a ready and convenient target. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, he has become the living representation of everything to which the left has been historically opposed (empire, big business and conspicuous wealth). But Blair is a more complex figure than either his supporters or detractors would suggest.

Among the lists of quotations about the Blair legacy published in newspapers in recent days, two sharply contradictory judgements leapt out at me. The first was from General Sir Michael Rose on the case for war in Iraq: "If Blair had been a director of Enron, he would be doing 40 years," he said. The second was from David Blunkett, twice removed from high office, but a Blair loyalist to the last: "Today Britain is better-educated, healthier, safer, fairer and more prosperous than ten years ago." The strange thing about the legacy is that both statements are true. Iraq was a series of catastrophic errors and the full scale of the deception that led to war is still to be revealed (as Christopher Ames demonstrates on the previous page). But on the home front, it is difficult to argue that Britain was a better place during the stagnant years of the John Major premiership. Despite Blunkett's best hardline efforts, Britain is, in many ways, a more tolerant and liberal society than it was in 1997, but then, so it should be: we have moved on.

Until recently, Tony Blair had been in denial about his departure. Discussions about his future have been kept to his closest inner circle. Only in recent days has he been prepared to talk more openly about a timetable. To those in the deepest recesses of the bunker, this denial was a necessary strategy to allow the work of governing the country to continue. But such has been the uncertainty around Whitehall that only the residual momentum of the civil service machine has allowed the great ship of state to move on. Senior civil servants have been kept in the dark, looking over their shoulders and wondering who will survive the new regime. There is no grand plan within the departments of state for the Brown era.

Ironically, the one person with whom Blair has been in regular contact during these uncertain times is Brown himself. I am told the two men have been holding regular meetings in the past few weeks, just the two of them, behind closed doors. There is a certain ritual to this. As the Chancellor's flat is famously situated above No 10 rather than No 11 Downing Street, it is a simple matter for him to pop in to the Prime Minister's private office on his way to work. These morning meetings, though sometimes explosive in the past, have formed the basis of a new working relationship between them in the months since last autumn's attempted "coup". Rarely is anyone else present. It seems fitting that the strategy for bringing the Blair era to an end has been drawn up in private between these two, just as they conspired to create new Labour in their shared office all those years ago.

Honour is mine

The strategy that has emerged from those meetings is that Brown will embrace Blair's legacy very publicly, refusing to denigrate or distance himself from the ten-year record. The Chan cellor's gushing tribute in the Sun ("I am honoured to call Tony Blair my oldest friend in politics") was closely followed by Blair's near-endorsement of Brown as the next prime minister. Although the rival camps were kept in the dark about the article and endorsement, both provide clear signs of a coming together of the two men as the day of departure nears. This tactic may help draw the sting out of the Conservatives' plans.

At least for the short term, Brown will celebrate what he sees as the great achievements of the new Labour era. After all, he has as good a claim to a share of the credit as anyone. Blairism is as much the invention of Gordon Brown as it was of the man who lent it its name.

Brown without Blair is an untested quantity. One man who may yet feel the void left by the Prime Minister more than most is the Chancellor himself. One of the many excitements and intrigues of the new era will be to see how Brown copes without his early-morning chats with his neighbour. He will have to be careful. There are many people within the parliamentary party and the wider labour movement who are tired of being lectured by Blair that their values are not "fit for purpose" in the modern world. They are crying out for Brown to differentiate himself from his predecessor as part of the process of party renewal. Brown and those around him will be painfully aware that, on issues such as equality, personal well-being and the environment, new Labour has allowed itself to look distinctly old-fashioned.

Now that the waiting is almost over, the new prime minister should not make the mistake of continuing business as usual when he finally comes to power. A Brown-shaped peg will not plug a Blair-shaped hole.

ELECTION 2007 For Martin Bright's analysis of the crucial 3 May results in Scotland, Wales and England, plus reaction from around the UK, go to our Election 2007 blog at: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/election-2007

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.