Those understandably alarmed by the announcement that Tony Blair will return as an “adviser” to Labour will presumably be relieved to learn that his remit is limited to how Britain can maximise its “Olympic legacy”. As Labour List’s Mark Ferguson writes, “If the party is going to fall out over what Tony Blair thinks we should do with a velodrome, we’re in real trouble…”.
Yet the political symbolism of Ed Miliband’s decision to share a platform with the former prime minister at last night’s Labour fundraising dinner should not be underestimated. In the early months of Miliband’s leadership, when he distanced the party from Blair’s stances on Iraq, the economy, tuition fees and civil liberties, the two would never have appeared in such close proximity. Blair’s memoir, A Journey, in which he echoed the coalition’s stance on deficit reduction, was seen as confirmation of his toxic status.
But Blair has since privately indicated that he agrees with Ed Balls’s critique of the government’s austerity programme as self-defeating. In his view, the coalition is going “too far, too fast”. As a result, Miliband is far more comfortable about appearing in public with Blair. Having already put clear red water between himself and the former prime minister, he is confident that Blair’s return will not be seen as evidence of a shift to the right.
Where Blair and Miliband continue to differ is on the future of capitalism. While Miliband believes the neoliberal model has fundamentally failed, Blair believes it can be revived. As the latter recently told the Evening Standard, “I understand that some people think the financial crisis has altered everything. And the mood is against this. Personally I don’t think that’s correct.” But Blair is not alone in such thinking. While Miliband and Balls are at one on the need to limit austerity, the shadow chancellor is more sceptical of his leader’s call for a new economic model.
Beyond this, one other thing is clear: Blair, like the rest of Westminster, has been forced to recognise Miliband as a potential future prime minister. As he said last night:
There is a rulebook in politics that goes something like this: Labour governs. Labour loses. Tories take over. Labour goes crazy. Tories carry on governing.
Time to re-write that script.
Actually it is being re-written by them and by us. They’re on their way down. We’re on our way up.
That Blair can now state with conviction that Labour, not the Tories, will win the next election is evidence of the transformation in Miliband’s political fortunes.