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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.