Bush and Blair: a tale of two former leaders

The former US president’s popularity is on the rise, while Blair’s couldn’t be much lower.

Being the former leader of a nation can be a lucrative and rewarding business. One can settle down to a quieter life safe in the knowledge that the public speaking gigs will be plentiful and that your memoirs will sell by the bucketload. With time, you may even gain that most prized of post-premiership perks: forgiveness.

But Tony Blair will have to wait a while yet.

If testifying at the Iraq war inquiry had already bought back uncomfortable memories of his tenure, the backlash over that photo with Muammar al-Gaddafi is something the Middle East envoy should have seen coming, even if he could not have predicted the scale of the uprisings in recent weeks.

As his remaining allies have been quick to point out, however, it was not just Blair who brought Gaddafi in from the cold in 2004. Among others, George W Bush was all too happy to welcome Libya back into the international fold.

Bush has faced some retrospective criticism for his relationship with Gaddafi in the US, but not to the same extent as Blair, perhaps due to his wise decision to allow Condoleezza Rice to be the one to pose for photos with the Libyan leader.

It is likely events in the Middle East will be little more than a blip in Bush's quest for redemption – a quest on which he is making far better progress than Blair.

Americans have always treated their former leaders with much greater reverence than in Britain, and while Bush has not exactly become a national treasure, his popularity is once again reaching the levels he enjoyed early on in his tenure. A December Gallup poll rated his retrospective job approval at 64 per cent, higher than his average approval rating over the course of his presidency.

After going underground for a long period after handing the reins to Barack Obama, Bush re-emerged in November with a whirlwind publicity tour to promote Decision Points, his inevitable presidential memoirs. What followed was a series of highly scripted, fist-pumping television appearances, aiming to paint Bush as just an ordinary guy who loves his county. Audience reactions seemed to welcome this notion.

It is hard to imagine Blair getting away with such a stunt.

His own memoirs, A Journey, published just two months before Bush's, also saw a former leader in the public eye once again. It sold in millions, but the British public was not so keen to welcome a repentant Blair back into its bosom. Being forced to change the book's title from The Journey to its newer, less self-important title wasn't exactly a good start.

Even his former party seems to have deserted Blair as Ed Miliband attempts to distance himself from the ghost of New Labour past. In the US, however, a resurgent Republican Party is pushing many of the traditional values that Bush espoused.

A year ago, the New Statesman reported on a mysterious billboard that emerged in Wyoming bearing the slogan "Miss Me Yet?" and a picture of the former president. What started as a jokey political poster quickly turned into an internet meme, with the slogan appearing on bumper stickers and T-shirts. Regardless of the current state of the country, it is hard to see a similar campaign working for Tony Blair.

Indeed, at the time of the general election, when Blair was offering his wisdom to assist Labour's campaign, he scored an average rating of 36.2 on a 1-100 scale of unfavourable to favourable feelings, according to a survey by Greenberg Research. If people were missing him, they certainly weren't showing it.

Bush and Blair will never be considered the most popular leaders of their respective countries. But, for Bush, sentiment seems to be shifting towards viewing him as a sympathetic and well-meaning character. Whether this is a backlash against Obama or a genuine display of affection remains to be seen, but for now, in certain circles at least, Bush is not a pariah. For Blair, however, there is always the hope that time can be a healer.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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