Tony Blair’s interview with this magazine and recent reports that he plans to “re-enter” public life have provoked the usual howls of outrage from both right and left. The anti-European Tory press has always loathed Tony because he won Labour three elections and restored our relations with the Continent after years of decline under the Tories. Some leftist commentators too, still obsessed with the Iraq war, want to silence him, as if they can’t bear the possibility that what he’s saying might be right.
As I stood waiting to be interviewed about the latest floods outside Exeter railway station yesterday, a middle-aged couple shuffled by, caught my eye, raised theirs to the skies and said: “Don’t get us started!” I interpreted this (wrongly, as it turned out) as unfriendly and replied: “No, what’s the problem? That’s what I (as your MP) am here for”.
They answered: “We’re life-long Labour voters. We’re distraught by Brexit and everything else that’s happening and there’s no leadership. We never thought we’d say this, but bring back Tony Blair.”
Of course, Tony Blair is not “coming back” and, as he himself makes clear, he can’t come back. But he is giving voice to the millions of people who have felt completely disenfranchised and leaderless since the referendum. Not just the 48 per cent, but the majority of Leave voters who don’t want us to leave the single market. Indeed, he is giving voice to anyone who fears that our rules-based liberal world order, which has delivered decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity, is about to be torn up for a return to reaction, protectionism, nationalism and worse.
I tell the railway station anecdote, not because it happened just after I’d read a column condemning Blair for having the gall to open his mouth, but because, as someone who spends most weekends going door to door in my constituency, I know the sentiment expressed by that couple is not uncommon.
Maybe I hear it more than most, because people know where I’m coming from, politically. But amid the horrors of Brexit, unending economic misery and President-elect Donald Trump, there is a nostalgia for a time when things got better and a yearning for the practical, progressive, optimistic and outward-looking politics that delivered it.
Just to be clear, I haven’t seen or spoken to Tony since his last Prime Minister’s questions nearly ten years’ ago. I’m not privy to what he’s up to. But if Labour’s most successful leader ever is spending his time and money helping the centre-left find answers to what’s happening and fight back effectively against it, I, for one, am grateful, and I know I’m not alone.