Blair's criticism is political gold for Miliband

The former PM's open disagreement over Syria shores up support for Miliband among anti-war Lib Dems.

Since Ed Miliband's election as Labour leader in his 2010, Tony Blair has sought to avoid explicitly referring to his obvious political differences with the man who sounded the death knell for New Labour.

But interviewed on the Today programme this morning on last week's Syria vote, he remarked frankly: "I wrote before the vote that I thought we had to support action in Syria and I said after the vote that I was disappointed by it. So this is something where I just have to disagree with the leadership of the party". What is significant is that he chose to blame Miliband, rather than Tory backbenchers or David Cameron, for the defeat, the first time he has openly taken issue with one of the Labour leader's stances. 

Blair made it clear that he believed Miliband behaved irresponsibly by not supporting the government's motion last week. "Not to act, I think, is dangerous because you're sending a signal that such a use of chemical weapons can take place without the international community having a robust and proper response," he said. He warned that while military action could be "long and bloody and difficult and expensive", inaction would be "long and bloody and difficult and expensive and worse". 

But while Cameron is also trying to frame Miliband as the guilty party, declaring at PMQs this week: "I don't think it was necessary to divide the House on a vote that could have led to a vote but he took the decision that it was", it's hard to think of a less helpful ally for him than Blair. 

Every time that Blair champions intervention, it inclines many Tories to do the reverse. For Miliband, conversely, the former PM's criticism is political gold. It validates his claim to have "turned the page" on New Labour and helps to shore up the support of the key group of 2010 Lib Dem voters (who will determine the outcome in 2015), who abandoned Labour in protest at Iraq. As one tweeter wrote shortly after the interview, "I don't feel very inspired by Miliband at best of times, but the moment Blair starts criticising him, I go all protective and sympathetic."

Since last week's defeat, to the frustration of many Lib Dems, Miliband has framed himself as the man who prevented a "rush to war", as the antithesis of 2003-era Blair. In that task, nothing could be more helpful than the damning judgement of the man himself. 

Update: Blair's once impeccably loyal deputy has rowed in behind Miliband.

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump