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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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