Tony Blair decries "conspiracy theories" about Iraq

Where? On Fox News.

In a recent feature that I wrote for the New Statesman, on Tony Blair and the Chilcot inquiry, I quoted Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), describing how our former PM "has lost all political credibility": "He sticks to the American right and media."

So imagine my (lack of) surprise to see ol' Tone running to his neocon friends at Fox News (Fox News!) to cry and complain about how horrid the beastly British people have been to him over Iraq:

Asked on US television why the UK had held a succession of such probes into the invasion, Mr Blair said: "I think it's partly because we have this curious habit -- I don't think this is confined to Britain actually -- where people find it hard to come to the point where they say: we disagree; you're a reasonable person, I'm a reasonable person, but we disagree.

"There's always got to be a scandal as to why you hold your view. There's got to be some conspiracy behind it, some great deceit that's gone on, and people just find it hard to understand that it's possible for people to have different points of view and hold them . . . for genuine reasons. There's a continual desire to sort of uncover some great conspiracy when actually there's a decision at the heart of it, but there it is," he told the Huckabee show on Fox News.

First, "deceit" has gone on. It doesn't matter if Alastair Campbell sheds tears on Marr, or Blair bleats on Huckabee; the evidence is overwhelming.

Second, conspiracy theories feed on secrecy -- Blair presided over one of the most secretive administrations in recent times. Even now, the Chilcot inquiry is prevented from making public key documents related to the build-up to war in 2002 and 2003.

Third, it's a bit rich for Blair to go on Fox News and complain about conspiracy theories when that network is the home of conspiracy theories, especially about President Obama -- from the Birther nonsense, to the Islamophobic fear-mongering about him being a Muslim, to the health-care "death panels".

David Hughes's take on Blair and his latest ridiculous comments is spot-on:

What a terrible disappointment we must be to our former prime minister. All this pretty straight kind of guy ever wanted to do was what was right, or at least what he believed to be right, which is not necessarily the same thing. Yet in his selfless quest to make the world a better place, he just kept coming up against the innate suspicion of an unworthy British people.

. . . has it dawned on him that his conduct of government that so outraged the Butler inquiry -- decisions taken by a clique of cronies, sensitive items never minuted, the cabinet (let alone parliament) kept out of the loop -- actually feeds into the idea that something fishy was going on? Apparently not. Blair is beginning to cut a rather pathetic figure, less the world statesman, more the lounge-bar bore who just cannot resist telling you what a raw deal he's had.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.