Mad or bad? Ex-PM Tony Blair in Hong Kong, 2012. Photo: Getty
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Blair’s supporters should stage a humanitarian intervention – and make him shut up about Iraq

How many Sure Start centres cancel out the depleted uranium used in Fallujah? Why does record investment in the NHS absolve the torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib?

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Those lucky Americans. On 20 January 2009, George W Bush boarded a helicopter and flew out of Washington, DC, never to be heard from again. Well, apart from that unreadable memoir in 2010. And, er, those rather odd self-portraits.

For Britons, however, Tony Blair never really went away. Month after month, year after year, he pops up on television, or appears in the newspapers, to promote an alliance with Putin’s Russia, or to defend Egypt’s military junta, or to push for military action against Iran/Syria/Iraq/fill-in-the-gap. He is the peace envoy who always wants war, the faith foundation boss who doesn’t understand the Islamic faith. Yet Blair, invader of Iraq, occupier of Afghanistan, defender of Israel’s 2006 blitz on Lebanon, is regularly and inexplicably invited by the British press to comment on all matters Middle Eastern. Why not ask Bernie Madoff to comment on financial regulation?

In an era of dreary politicians, the silver-tongued Blair continues to beguile us. He is the Cristiano Ronaldo of politics: slick, skilful, über-confident and astonishingly arrogant. He may have converted to Catholicism but our former PM isn’t interested in confession. Blair doesn’t do remorse. As for an apology – you’re kidding, right?

Seven years after quitting Downing Street, “the Master” still retains an army of apologists, in the commentariat and inside the Labour Party. Rather than stage a humanitarian intervention of their own and persuade their hero to keep shtum, his supporters constantly rally around him, always ready to defend the indefensible.

When I interviewed the former culture secretary Tessa Jowell in February, for example, she called Blair’s backing of Egypt’s brutal generals “brave” and “counter-intuitive”. Meanwhile, in a recent BBC interview, the former home secretary Charles Clarke said that poor ol’ Tony was “in quite a tragic position” because he couldn’t return to British politics.

Even senior Labour figures who opposed the Iraq war, such as the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, can’t bring themselves to disown their former leader. I asked Khan how Blair could conceivably be in the running for the job of EU president, given his bloodstained past. “He won three elections,” he replied, urging me to look at the ex-PM’s wider, domestic record. What’s the metric? How many Sure Start centres cancel out the depleted uranium used in Fallujah? Which increase in the minimum wage excuses the kids killed by cluster bombs in Hilla? Why does record investment in the NHS absolve the torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib?

It cannot be said often enough: Blair’s misadventure in Mesopotamia was a moral, political and financial catastrophe, which led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, millions of Iraqi refugees and billions of pounds squandered. Blair and Bush became recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda: according to a 2007 study, the Iraq war “generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks”.

Our former PM now claims he “underestimated” the “depth and the complexity of the problem”. He can’t say he wasn’t warned. His holiday pal Hosni Mubarak of Egypt predicted that the invasion of Iraq would produce “100 Bin Ladens”, while his own joint intelligence committee told him the threat from al-Qaeda “would be heightened by military action against Iraq”.

In November 2002, four months before the invasion, three experts on Iraq were invited to brief the then PM in Downing Street. One of the three, George Joffe of Cambridge University, tells me how he outlined Iraq’s sectarian and tribal divisions and warned of the danger of postwar insurgency and civil conflict. Blair’s only response: “But the man’s evil, isn’t he?” Joffe was “staggered” to discover the prime minister was “completely uninterested in the complexities” of Iraqi society and displayed a “shallow mind”. In Blair’s head, says the Cambridge academic, the whole Iraq issue was “personalised” in the form of Saddam Hussein and: “It was clear that the decision had already been made . . . to invade.”

What’s going on inside Blair’s head today? Opinion is divided. Our former prime minister has “finally gone mad”, claimed Boris Johnson in the Telegraph on 16 June, and “needs professional psychiatric help”. The neuropsychologist Paul Broks has called Blair a “plausible psychopath . . . charming, intelligent, emotionally manipulative”.

Then there is the “Bliar” brigade, which sees the ex-PM as a knowing and serial untruth-teller. “We were misled,” the former Labour cabinet minister Clare Short told the Iraq inquiry in February 2010. “On the one thing that he’s taken a stand . . . which was taking us to war, he didn’t even tell the truth about that,” the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, argued in April 2005.

Is he mad or bad? Deluded or dishonest? It no longer matters. Blair’s reputation lies in tatters. More than half of Brits believe their former prime minister was wrong to invade Iraq; one in five tell YouGov they think he should be tried as a war criminal. Blair can try to pretend he lives a normal life but when he goes to a book signing, people pelt him with eggs; when he goes out for dinner with his family, people try to arrest him. He doesn’t want our forgiveness – and nor will we give it to him.

“We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this,” wrote Blair on his website on 14 June, responding to the recent rise of the al-Qaeda offshoot Isis inside Iraq. “We haven’t.” For once, he’s right. “We” didn’t cause it. He did. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.