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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad