Should Tony Blair be our next prime minister at the head of a new centrist party? Daniel Finkelstein raises the preposterous notion in Wednesday’s Times. As someone who tried and failed to launch a new centrist party, not because I believed I could succeed but because no one else would, I know its searing realities. It was one of the worst experiences of my career. It strained my family. I know that it is not something that anybody can do. But if there is somebody who could do it, who could win an election leading it, it is Tony Blair.
When the last general election was called I was an anti-terrorism officer for the Foreign Office fighting ISIS. I was proud to serve my country, protecting our streets from suicide bombers. But in the midst of our biggest national crisis since 1945 I was demoralised by the lack of moral courage of moderate politicians to put their country before their careers and unite in a new party. So I resigned and stood as an independent candidate in Battersea for a new centrist movement. I hoped to make the point that it is possible to take a risk and make sacrifices for what you believe.
Of course you can argue that Blair is too toxic, forever tainted by Iraq. But Finkelstein is spot on pointing out that Blair won an election after Iraq, and that in any case a new centrist party is tainted too because it will inevitably be a Blairite party anyway. So own it.
Yes Blair needs to show more humility over the terrible mistakes in British foreign policy on his watch, and show that he has learned from them. But time is a great healer. How much has Donald Trump done to make George W Bush seem not so bad? How much has austerity, the chaos of Brexit, the institutional racism and sheer incompetence of today’s Conservative and Labour parties, done to make the Blair years look not so bad? A time of falling poverty, political stability and well-funded public services – voters might just think we’d like to take back control of that country.
Of course, we would like an outsider because we hate politicians. But we only vote for politicians. Labour and Conservative politicians, in fact. Time and time again on the doorstep, people would tell me that what I was up to was a wonderful dream but they wanted to stop/ kick out Labour/ the Conservatives so they would vote Conservative/ Labour. The brutal logic of the First Past The Post system is that it can only be overcome by a personal political brand bigger than the Conservative and Labour parties. Only a person whose name is a political philosophy, who could be backed by a tsunami of defecting MP’s, can achieve that. Anyone else is wasting their time.
Far more important than a cosmetic outsider, I believe, are policies that show brutal intent to tackle the defining issue of our time, the left behind. This by definition requires sacrifice by the rich. One could do worse than explore the ideas of French anti-poverty campaigner Niels Planel, who urges that every eighteen-year-old is universally endowed with approximately £50,000 that can only be spent on further education, a house, or to start a business. It could be funded by a land tax or inheritance tax. Planel also suggests creating an “Office of Economic Opportunity” to coordinate anti-poverty programmes, modelled on former US President Lyndon Johnson’s effective war on poverty in the sixties. Catch up the left behind and the toxicity of our politics ends.
Anything that smacks of a “remoan” project will fail. So perhaps it means respecting the Brexit vote, much of which came from left-behind areas, with the limited negative economic impact of a soft Norway style Brexit.
Our country is in crisis and the counter-intuitive logic is that Tony Blair has the best chance of tackling it. He is not past it. He is younger than Churchill when he became prime minister, close in age to May and younger than Corbyn and Cable. He has nothing to lose. Now is the time for Tony Blair to overcome Iraq and ask what he can do for our country.
Chris Coghlan is a former Foreign Office anti-terrorism officer who stood as independent candidate for a new centrist movement last election @_chris_coghlan