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The return of the Blair

What Ed M should and shouldn't learn from TB.

He's back. From yesterday's Sun:

Ed Miliband has been holding secret talks with former PM Tony Blair to discuss Labour's strategy.

The pair have met four times to review the party's direction under Mr Miliband's leadership.

That is despite his attempts to distance the party from the New Labour years. He has also criticised Mr Blair's decision to take Britain to war in Iraq.

But a party source said despite their differences, the pair have held fruitful discussions since Mr Miliband became leader.

And from Jonathan Freedland's Guardian column last Saturday:

The former PM, clearly keen to re-engage with British politics after nearly five years away, has been meeting small groups of young, class-of-2010 Labour MPs. What he says privately is that the Lib Dem position is hopeless. . .

Blair's proposed method starts with a repeated insistence that this is nothing but a "Tory government".

I have no problems with Blair advising Ed Miliband or the "class-of-2010" MPs - and not just because our former premier agrees with my line on the coalition. As a "friend" of Blair's told the Sun:

Tony is the greatest political strategist of his generation -- why wouldn't Ed want to meet him?

Indeed. And Miliband shouldn't be embarrassed about taking Blair's advice on strategy and tactics and spin and communications and the rest. The truth is that Blair was, and still is, a master of presentation and persuasion. As I wrote in a column in the Times in December:

Above all else, [Ed Miliband] struggles as a rhetorician in set-piece speeches and primetime interviews. Mr Miliband is the exact reverse of Tony Blair: for this Labour leader, politics is an intellectual, not a theatrical, pursuit. He needs to be much more Blair-like in front of the cameras.

But Miliband and the new intake of Labour MPs should be wary of listening to Blair on matters of substance. According to the Sun, the pair "talked about the need for Labour to be in the centre ground of British politics". But Blair's definition of the "centre ground" is very different to Miliband's - it is premised on the arguments and rows of the 1990s and the fallout from Labour's back-to-back election defeats, at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, in the 1980s. Yet, from public attitudes to high pay and bankers' bonuses to political and media attitudes to the Murdoch empire, the world has moved on. We don't know what TB's response would have been to the 2008/09 financial crisis - we do know, however, that he offered a seeming endorsement of the Tory-led coalition's cuts-obsessed economic strategy in his memoir, A Journey (though Freedland says Blair now "backs Ed Balls in the great macro-economic question of the age, agreeing that excessive austerity will choke off recovery and that what's needed is Keynesian action for growth. . . accompanied by a clear deficit reduction plan and enough business allies to convince voters that if Labour's advocating spending it is doing so not out of congenital habit, but hard-headed economic necessity").

The standard and lazy riposte from the ultra-Blairites to even the mildest criticism of their hero is to remind us that he "won three elections in a row". Yes, he did - an impressive, remarkable and historic achievement. But, in the cold light of history, his record as a vote-winner isn't as impeccable or infallible as some might assume. Some points to consider:

1) In July 1994, Blair inherited a 13 per cent poll lead over the Tories from the late John Smith; it was handed to him on a plate. Despite extending it to a massive 29 points in June 1995, on election day in May 1997, Labour beat the tired, divided, lacklustre, scandal-ridden Tories by - wait for it - just under 13 percentage points.

2) Labour lost four million votes on Blair's watch, between 1997 and 2005 (and another million on Brown's watch, in 2010). From the moment Blair walked through the black door of Number 10, the Labour vote share started to decline and the "master" himself could do little to halt or reverse it in the subsequent general elections.

3) Blair won his three election victories, in an age of affluence, against John Major, William Hague and Michael Howard (who picked up the baton from Iain Duncan Smith). He never had to face a tough opponent - be it Ken Clarke, who the Tories crazily rejected again and again, or Blair's own "heir", David Cameron.

4) Blair benefited from a voting system that is biased in favour of the Labour Party: in 2005, for example, TB secured a third term, with a healthy 66-seat majority, on just 35.2 per cent of the vote (that is, one in five eligible British voters). Five years later, however, Cameron's Conservatives couldn't get a majority in the Commons despite winning 36.1 per cent of the vote.

5) By the time Blair reluctantly left office, in the wake of a series of embarrassing scandals and unpopular wars, his sheen had worn off - the Tories' had a near-uninterrupted poll lead over Blair's Labour Party between December 2005 and Blair's resignation in May 2007. Unlike Blair, Ed Miliband inherited a Labour Party trailing the Tories in the polls in September 2010.

In our recent biography of Miliband, James Macintyre and I explore how the current Labour leader succeeded in beating his elder brother - and hot-favourite - David by understanding the need for a message that stressed "change" over "continuity". As the younger Miliband stated, provocatively, in an essay for the Fabian Society in August 2010:

It is my rejection of. . . New Labour nostalgia that makes me the modernising candidate at this election.

It is, therefore, irrelevant how many times Miliband meets with Blair - I just hope the Labour leader doesn't forget these all-important words of his. To modernise is to change and move on from the past. In substance and message, Tony Blair is very much the past.

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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Why is Theresa May wasting time and money on the Article 50 case?

The Prime Minister has wasted time, money and weakened her position for no good reason. 

The question of who has the power to pull the Article 50 trigger – the executive or the legislature – is still rumbling at the Supreme Court, but yesterday’s vote renders the matter somewhat otiose. 

461 MPs voted in favour of a motion supporting the government’s timetable for triggering Article 50, with just 89 dissidents, with 23 Labour MPs and Ken Clarke joining Caroline Lucas, the nine Liberal Democrats and the SNP in voting against the motion. 

“MPs hand May 'blank cheque' for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s splash. “Hooray! MPs say yes to EU exit” roars the Express. “Victory for PM: Commons backs May on Brexit” is the i’s take. “Day MPs spoke for Britain” is the Mail’s splash, while the Guardian goes for the somewhat more sedate “MPs back government timetable to trigger Article 50” below the fold.

But that doesn’t mean that the deliberations of David Neuberger and the rest of the Court don’t matter. If the Court rules that Article 50 does represent a loss of rights not provided for in the referendum, that requires a vote of the legislature – and that means both houses of Parliament and an full Act of Parliament. 

It’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court could rule that Article 50 does entail a loss of rights BUT that the legislature had already weighed in by voting to have a referendum – Neuberger described this as the “hole” in the claimants’ case – but the whole affair raises questions of Theresa May’s judgement. It’s not clear what the government has gained by appealing a judgement rather than seeking parliamentary approval. It is clear that the government has wasted both money and time on the court case, when a parliamentary majority was always at hand.

There's a bigger risk to the PM, too. If the Supreme Court judgement limits executive power further, or rules that not only Westminster, but the devolved legislatures, must also vote on whether to pull the Article 50 trigger, the PM’s pugnacious manner could put Brexit – and her premiership – in some jeopardy. 

TROUBLE AHEAD

Speaking of the PM…Theresa May is interviewed in today’s FT by George Parker and Lionel Barber. Among the topics: why she gave George Osborne the push, whether or not she’s a “control freak”, and why she once compared herself to Elizabeth I. 

But the striking moment is the brief appearance of the old Remain-backing May, with her warning that the nations of the EU27 “don’t want to see others looking to break away and to vote to leave in the way the UK has done” making the negotiations over Britain’s Brexit deal trickier than many – including May herself – are often willing to admit publicly. 

DERAILING GRAYLING

Chris Grayling is under fire after the Evening Standard’s Pippa Crerar revealed that he blocked Sadiq Khan’s takeover of London’s suburban railways not in order to look out for passengers, but to keep his grubby Labour hands off it. Bob Neil, the Conservative MP for Bromley, demanded that Theresa May sack the Transport Secretary at PMQs yesterday. Over at CityMetric, Jonn is very angry about the whole thing.

SO, EVERYONE, THEN? 

Another Theresa May interview, this time with Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth in the Spectator. She has some sharp words for the Civil Service, accusing officials of trying to second-guess her and to quantify everything. Particularly exercising her: Whitehall’s attempt to quantify what the “just managing” she wants to help means in terms of income (£18k-£21k).  She says it means anything from “holding down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet”, to those worried about job security, to homeowners “worried about paying the mortgage”.

SLING YOUR HYKE

Polls are open in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, an ultra-safe Conservative seat that voted to leave the European Union by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. But all attention is being focused on the battle for second and third place, with Ukip expecting to steal second from Labour. Meanwhile, Labour fears they may be pushed into fourth by the Liberal Democrats.

OUR STEEL, SAVED?
A deal has been struck to save the steelworks at Port Talbot, with Tata Steel commiting to keep production there running, provided that workers agree to close off the pension scheme they inherited from British Steel to new workers. “Tata and unions agree rescue plan for Port Talbot steelworks” is the FT’s splash.

MATTE-OH

Matteo Renzi has officially resigned as Italian Prime Minister after two-and-a-half years, the fourth-longest serving PM in the history of the Republic. 

DFID CONSULTANCIES

Private consultancies working in international development will be forced to disclose their fees and salaries, Priti Patel has vowed after a Timesinvestigation into the millions spent on consultancies by the department. 

SEE? IMMIGRATION CREATES JOBS

The Home Affairs Select Committee will launch an inquiry into public attitudes to immigration today. Committee chair Yvette Cooper says that it will be “a different kind of inquiry, looking outward at the country, not inward at the government.” MPs will tour the country talking to the public about the issue. 

DOMINIC, AGGRIEVED

Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney-General, has called on Theresa May to dissociate herself from the Mail’s “vitriolic abuse” of judges in the Supreme Court case. Anushka Asthana has the story in the Guardian.

CAMERON, INC

David Cameron has set up a limited company to manage his speaking engagements and private ventures in retirement. He has also sold his memoirs, albeit for what is believed to be a lower fee than that secured by Tony Blair for The Journey. Michael Savage has the story in the Times.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Christmas is coming! And the Christmas sandwich is already here. The NS team – including our editor – share their thoughts on the best and the worst.

MUST READS

Britain is heading for the hardest of Brexits, says Charles Grant

Julia wonders if Brexit has transformed British politics just as Scotland’s referendum did

Labour and Tory MPs alike fear what Brexit could unleash, says George

This originally appeared in today's Morning Call: get it in your inboxes Monday through Friday - sign up here.

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