Tony Blair attends the 2013 CCTV's China Economic Person Of The Year Award on December 12, 2013 in Beijing, China. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Even as a Blairite, I'm tired of defending Blair

Labour’s serial election winner may have finally found an enemy who is capable of destroying him: himself.

At a televised town hall meeting shortly before the 2010 Congressional elections, Democratic supporter Velma Hart told President Obama that she was "exhausted of defending you, defending your administration...and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

I know how she feels.

In 1997, my school was falling down. In 2007, I was offered a place at Oxford University. In the decade between, I saw the local housing estate be completely rebuilt and I heard my teacher tell the school bully that there was nothing wrong with being gay. I attended a civil partnership and I watched Northern Ireland go from breaking news to a peaceful settlement.

So I’m never going to get exhausted of defending Tony Blair’s administration, but I am increasingly tired of defending Tony Blair, and I’m disappointed, too, with where we are right now. I’m not, to be honest, particularly exercised about what Tony Blair says to Rebekah Brooks – everyone’s got at least one slightly dodgy mate -  but I am angry that the man who is quite rightly hailed as a hero in Kosovo for standing up to a brutal dictator now takes money from another brutal dictator in Kazakhstan. I don’t understand why the man who led a government that was more redistributive than Clement Attlee’s now runs a foundation that won’t pay its interns.

These ought to be boom years for Tony Blair; David Cameron’s brutal and incompetment administration is a living rebuke to those who claimed that there was no difference between New Labour and unrestrained Conservatism. The institutions and services that people are now rallying to defend against the coalition’s axe are, for the most part, ones that were set up by Blair’s government. Abroad, too, the events of the last seven years should have restored and strengthened Blair’s reputation. Iraq is a running sore, but Western leaders have now stress-tested whether or not you can have regime change without outside intervention, and the bloody lesson from Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Egypt is that if the incumbent controls the military and has no inclination to leave freely, then you do not get regime change. But who do latter-day supporters of a foreign policy that puts freedom and democracy at the heart of Britain’s dealings in the Middle East find supporting the military junta in Egypt? Tony Blair.

In office, Blair was blessed in his opponents, who were mostly either odious, like George Galloway, inadequate a la Hague, or, in the case of Iain Duncan Smith, both. In retirement, though, Labour’s serial election winner may have finally found an enemy who is capable of destroying him: himself. Instead of developing the stature of a British Bill Clinton, he instead taking on many of the worst features of the post-White House Clinton; the sinister associates, the dirty money, and a party that, instead of lauding him as a saviour, begins to regard him as, at best, a slightly embarrassing elderly relative.

It has taken eight years of the worst and most right-wing President in American history, and a further six years of progressive rule dominated by conservative instrangience for the Democrats to truly let the Clintons into their hearts again. Blair seems determined to ensure that even twenty years of Boris Johnson in Number Ten may not be enough to save him.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496