Tony Blair is back. The Middle East is aflame, the coalition floundering. Whatever your view of Labour’s polarising former premier, he hasn’t lost his sense of political timing.
“Blair the ‘back-seat driver’ tells Ed Miliband to up his game”, reported the Sunday Telegraph. “The former prime minister has told Mr Miliband he has risked cheapening his role by intervening too often on too many relatively trivial issues.”
Miliband was no doubt delighted with the advice. As Nick Clegg grapples the Monster Raving Loony Party for political survival – and David Cameron strides on to the international stage with all the gravitas and judgement of Dr Strangelove – Labour’s current leader needs his predecessor popping up like he needs a hole in the head.
Attempts to brush off Sunday’s briefing as part of a “regular” series of conversations between the two men have fooled no one. Blair is, not to put too fine a point on things, pissed off. He’s angry at Miliband’s apparent junking of New Labour. He’s even angrier at attempts to tarnish his legacy with what he sees as misrepresentation of his efforts to bring Muammar al-Gaddafi into the international mainstream.
And he’s most angry at what he regards as an effort to use the “Arab spring” as a further stick to beat him, his Iraq policy and his broader policy of progressive interventionism.
Ed Miliband’s team believe this anger is now being channelled into a co-ordinated Blairite fightback. Jack Straw, Peter Mandelson, David Miliband and Jim Murphy have all made recent high-profile interventions defending Blair and his foreign affairs record and philosophy. “We know what’s going on,” said one Miliband supporter. “We’re not stupid.”
Claims in the Telegraph article that Blair was responsible for recent improvements in Milband’s performance and standing have been met with bewilderment. “It would be ludicrous to pretend this is all down to Tony – the unpopularity of the government’s spending cuts obviously plays a major role – but Ed is always happy to listen to his advice,” said a leadership source.
Those close to the Blairite camp see things somewhat differently. According to supporters of the former leader, Ed Miliband is becoming increasingly nervous at his failure to build a proper support base within the party. “Last time Ed spoke to Tony he wanted his help and advice in shoring up his position,” one said. “It’s taking much longer to bring people round than Ed anticipated.”
There are also frustrations among a number of Blairite supporters with what they see as Miliband’s failure to build on his recent tactical success. “The coalition keeps screwing up, and we keep hitting them. But we’re not building an alternative case for why people should back Labour. Our only argument is ‘at least we’re not the Tories or the Lib Dems’.”
Yet differing emphases over the response to the tumultuous events in the Middle East are creating the most significant tensions. Miliband’s team fervently believes there is no appetite among the voters for further international adventurism. “Even if we wanted to get involved in Libya, the public won’t wear it,” said one source.
This sits in stark contrast to the interventionist instincts of some members of his own shadow cabinet. At a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London on Thursday, Jim Murphy issued a veritable call to arms. “Britain can and should play an important part in shaping world events and trends, with our armed forces its heart,” he urged.
That Britain should have responsibilities beyond her borders, he said, was “not, as some would have it, ideological, but, as we have seen over the last few days, a necessary response to the world in which we live. This is a challenge for the Labour Party. Opposition is about proving your preparedness to engage with the issues you would have to in government if it is to be responsible and ultimately electorally credible.”
Compare that to an article Miliband wrote for the Observer four days earlier and the difference in emphasis is striking. He wrote:
The neocons were wrong to think we could impose democracy at the point of a gun. In this new era, soft power will often be a better way to achieve hard results. That is why support for civil society, the promotion of national assets such as the British Council and the BBC World Service, is so important. Our template should be the EU’s response to the democratic revolutions of 1989 which helped make change in eastern Europe irreversible, with economic aid, technical assistance and institution-building.
The crisis in the Middle East has forced Miliband to sit down at the chessboard of foreign policy rather earlier in his leadership than he would have liked. Because of that, he has yet to formulate a settled policy agenda.
But he does have one simple rule: avoid getting into the mess Blair got himself into.
It’s not a foreign affairs credo the former leader and his supporters are likely to warm to.