The most striking moment of the Q&A that followed Tony Blair’s speech on the EU came when he remarked that he agreed “completely” with what Ed Miliband was saying “about the central challenge of inequality”. Striking, because the two men have often at odds on this issue. When Miliband was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University in 2003 he played his class a video of the former PM being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman during the 2001 election in which he was asked six times whether the gap between the rich and the poor mattered – and six times refused to say that it did. It was this encounter that produced Blair’s memorable declaration that “It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money”. Miliband has often cited this quote as evidence of New Labour was too “relaxed” about inequality (although child poverty and pensioner poverty were significantly reduced between 1997 and 2010, the gap between the rich and poor slightly increased having widened dramatically under the Conservatives).
Similarly notable was Blair’s response today that the party has “excellent policies” to address this issue. Since Miliband became leader Blair has made little attempt to disguise his disagreement with measures such as the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. It’s worth noting that Blair’s comments were made in response to a question on Miliband’s stance on business. By simply replying that he agreed with him on inequality he avoided a potentially troublesome answer. But it’s also possible that Blair, like many others, now feels that the gap between the rich and poor, a side-issue during the long boom, can no longer be ignored.