It’s not only Blair who should be saying sorry

When is the Labour Party going to apologise for inflicting this man upon us?

Publication of Tony Blair's toe-curling autobiography has been greeted with a degree of outrage, much of which rings a little false, as it was surely obvious that "the young war criminal", as the late Alan Watkins used to refer to the former prime minister, was not going to apologise for his role in the illegal invasion of Iraq.

Many of us, however, are still waiting for another overdue act of contrition. And that would be the Labour Party apologising for inflicting this greedy, self-deluding, philosophically vacuous man and his cohorts of power-hungry, unprincipled acolytes upon us for the past 13 years.

Some Labour supporters and members appear to think it unfair to dwell on the Blair-Brown administrations. Only recently, when I posted ten reasons why Charles Kennedy should not join Labour, one commenter wrote: "New Labour are gone GET OVER IT!" Naturally, I can see that it might well be convenient to overlook the party's actions during its long years in government. In most democracies, though, the tradition -- not an unreasonable one, I can't help but feel -- is to judge a party's promises against its recent record in power.

No wonder many would like to draw a veil of silence over that time. (I would happily join any paeans to Roy Jenkins's first period at the Home Office, for instance, but I think we can safely say that the years 1997-2010 are of more relevance here than 1965-67.)

Further, if you believe the spin put on an opinion poll by YouGov published yesterday, which found that 72 per cent of undecided voters would be less likely to vote for Labour if it pursued New Labour policies, you will not find it surprising that leading party figures should wish to distance themselves from Tony and his pals.

But Blair and his gang did not come to be in charge by chance. Labour Party members are not believed to have mislaid their votes in large numbers back in 1994. Nor can one argue that the party simply woke up one morning -- after indulging in too many ales at the Durham Miners' Gala, perhaps -- to find to their surprise that they were led by a man who cared little for their past and shared few of their beliefs. No, they knowingly elected a man whose mission, as Simon Jenkins wrote in a brilliantly devastating column on Friday, was "to anaesthetise the Labour Party while he turned it into a vehicle to make him electable and his newly espoused Thatcherism irreversible".

Some may say that this was not obvious at the time; and it is true that a good many people were taken in by him. For those whose judgement was not clouded by the desperate desire for Labour to return to office, however, it was quite clear that Blair was, by instinct, authoritarian, moralistic and lacking in any affection for his party's history, while his every speech and act indicated that, by any yardstick, he was exceedingly right wing. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, discussing with an Old Labour refusenik how strange it seemed that a Liberal like me should find himself so much to the left of the new leader of the Labour Party.

Even after the sad death of John Smith (a man who would have had no truck with New Labour, and whose good taste is shown by how he took, it is said, "an instantaneous dislike" to Peter Mandelson), it is not as though there were no alternatives. There was Robin Cook, later the only cabinet minister to resign over Iraq before it was invaded. Bryan Gould, once a much-fancied leadership contender, could have been persuaded to stay and to forgo his return to New Zealand (from where his occasional commentaries have continued to give us reason to lament his absence; I commend this article from last year, "Labour has betrayed the people").

Instead, the Labour Party chose Blair. Not the mass of British voters, who play no part in the election of the executive. Not the majority who did not tick the Labour box in any of the three elections Blair "won" -- they had even less say in the matter. No, the choice of Tony Blair, and the failure to remove him swiftly -- or even to pluck up the courage to challenge him -- were solely the responsibility of the Labour Party, whose members were the only people, apart from the voters of Sedgefield, who had a chance to express their opinion of him at the ballot box.

What happened to the collective conscience of Labour MPs, members and voters during those 13 years? If they didn't have the backbone to get rid of a leader they should never have favoured in the first place, why didn't they defect en masse to the Liberal Democrats when they were led by Charles Kennedy, whose party and policies were at the time identifiably more of the left? Or at least take the New Statesman's advice before the 2005 general election on "How to give Blair a bloody nose"?

As the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, puts it in the current issue of the NS: "They act as if they were out to lunch while it all happened." (The reference is to the four male Labour leadership candidates, but it applies equally well to the broader party and its supporters.) If one didn't know better, one might be tempted to draw the conclusion that Iraq, PFIs, rising inequality and carbon emissions (to quote four problems from Lucas's list) were all deemed worth it, if that was the price of holding on to power -- because they can't actually have believed in such policies, can they?

I have expressed my regard for Ed Miliband before on this site, and I do hope he wins his party's contest. He represents the best hope for a break from the past 13 years.

But until there is some public repudiation of that time, an admission of guilt and complicity in the ghastly errors and wasted opportunities associated with Tony Blair and the whole New Labour project -- until there is nothing less than a proper apology from the Labour Party to the British people -- do forgive me if I treat the utterances of the current leadership contenders in the same way as Gordon Brown once said he did Tony Blair's promises: "There is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Donald Tusk is merely calling out Tory hypocrisy on Brexit

And the President of the European Council has the upper hand. 

The pair of numbers that have driven the discussion about our future relationship with the EU since the referendum have been 48 to 52. 

"The majority have spoken", cry the Leavers. "It’s time to tell the EU what we want and get out." However, even as they push for triggering the process early next year, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s reply to a letter from Tory MPs, where he blamed British voters for the uncertain futures of expats, is a long overdue reminder that another pair of numbers will, from now on, dominate proceedings.

27 to 1.

For all the media speculation around Brexit in the past few months, over what kind of deal the government will decide to be seek from any future relationship, it is incredible just how little time and thought has been given to the fact that once Article 50 is triggered, we will effectively be negotiating with 27 other partners, not just one.

Of course some countries hold more sway than others, due to their relative economic strength and population, but one of the great equalising achievements of the EU is that all of its member states have a voice. We need look no further than the last minute objections from just one federal entity within Belgium last month over CETA, the huge EU-Canada trade deal, to be reminded how difficult and important it is to build consensus.

Yet the Tories are failing spectacularly to understand this.

During his short trip to Strasbourg last week, David Davis at best ignored, and at worse angered, many of the people he will have to get on-side to secure a deal. Although he did meet Michel Barnier, the senior negotiator for the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative at the future talks, he did not meet any representatives from the key Socialist Group in the European Parliament, nor the Parliament’s President, nor the Chair of its Constitutional Committee which will advise the Parliament on whether to ratify any future Brexit deal.

In parallel, Boris Johnson, to nobody’s surprise any more, continues to blunder from one debacle to the next, the most recent of which was to insult the Italians with glib remarks about prosecco sales.

On his side, Liam Fox caused astonishment by claiming that the EU would have to pay compensation to third countries across the world with which it has trade deals, to compensate them for Britain no longer being part of the EU with which they had signed their agreements!

And now, Theresa May has been embarrassingly rebuffed in her clumsy attempt to strike an early deal directly with Angela Merkel over the future residential status of EU citizens living and working in Britain and UK citizens in Europe. 

When May was campaigning to be Conservative party leader and thus PM, to appeal to the anti-european Tories, she argued that the future status of EU citizens would have to be part of the ongoing negotiations with the EU. Why then, four months later, are Tory MPs so quick to complain and call foul when Merkel and Tusk take the same position as May held in July? 

Because Theresa May has reversed her position. Our EU partners’ position remains the same - no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered and Britain sets out its stall. Merkel has said she can’t and won’t strike a pre-emptive deal.  In any case, she cannot make agreements on behalf of France,Netherlands and Austria, all of who have their own imminent elections to consider, let alone any other EU member. 

The hypocrisy of Tory MPs calling on the European Commission and national governments to end "the anxiety and uncertainty for UK and EU citizens living in one another's territories", while at the same time having caused and fuelled that same anxiety and uncertainty, has been called out by Tusk. 

With such an astounding level of Tory hypocrisy, incompetence and inconsistency, is it any wonder that our future negotiating partners are rapidly losing any residual goodwill towards the UK?

It is beholden on Theresa May’s government to start showing some awareness of the scale of the enormous task ahead, if the UK is to have any hope of striking a Brexit deal that is anything less than disastrous for Britain. The way they are handling this relatively simple issue does not augur well for the far more complex issues, involving difficult choices for Britain, that are looming on the horizon.

Richard Corbett is the Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber.