Much will be made of how Tony Blair “still has the old magic”, and it’s true: he does. Adorned with a Middle Eastern tan, a little slimmer and — at times — sounding a touch American, Blair has lost none of his communication and, yes, performance skills.
Predictably, he had the room of Labour activists from the north-east area around his former Sedgefield constituency laughing with his routine self-deprecating gags about how intimidating it could be for Tory candidates (encouraged by locals to address working men’s clubs during the bingo), and, indeed, how scary it was at first for Blair himself. Here was a man at ease, back in what he calls his “political spiritual home”.
Much will be said about whether or not Blair remains an “asset” to his party, especially given the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. But, standing in front of a backdrop with the Labour campaign slogan “A Future Fair for All” and, unusually, wearing a red tie, he held the local party in thrall.
And, on the eve of what Blair described as a “momentous” decision for the electorate, it is the substance of his words — not the style in which they were delivered — that deserves real attention.
First, this self-proclaimed “optimist” outlined the context in which this election draws near.
He said that back in September 2007 the power elite privately believed that the world economy was “doomed” to a return to the 1930s. He contrasted that with the promise of growth and recovery marked by this month’s Budget. This “path” was mapped out “not by chance, but by choice”. And, attracting his first round of applause, Blair uttered the words that Downing Street has collectively been waiting to hear: “The decision to act required leadership. And Gordon Brown supplied it.”
Blair paid tribute to Alistair Darling, too, and his old friend Peter Mandelson. “In uncertain times,” he said, “there’s a lot to be said for certain leadership.”
Yet the most powerful passage came when Blair turned his full fire on the Tories for the first time since he left Downing Street in the summer of 2007. He said the question was who “gets” the future direction Britain must take, and shared the view that “Time for a change” is the most “vacuous” of political slogans. For the Tories have not changed, Blair argued with skill.
Crucially, he compared the current Conservative position to that of New Labour prior to the 1997 election. Labour had changed its party constitution, compromised with the electorate. And even when Labour was 20 points ahead, he pointed out, the party leadership had not flinched from its new “philosophical” position, which was “woven” right across its policy agenda. The implication was that David Cameron is being “buffeted by events” — as in fiscal policy — or reverting to his core vote.
The sound of strategy
Notably, Blair did not mention Cameron by name, but tore into his policies, especially on Europe. The decision to leave centre-right politics in Europe was a “sop” to the right wing of the Conservative Party. And — besides being a waste of goodwill among mainstream European leaders who would be forced to work with Cameron — it did not bode well for the manner in which policy is being made. Blair said the Tory party had “gone right” on Europe “when it should have gone centre”, stating emphatically that no party in modern politics had won an election on an anti-European platform.
No doubt to the dismay of some, he then went on to claim that the Tories had “gone liberal” on crime when they should have “stuck” to a traditional Tory approach. That will play better in the country at large than among liberals, and represented a flash of why some accuse Blair of being “right-wing”.
But today there was no doubt whom Blair wanted to win next time. The polls, he said, were narrowing because the question of what “change” would mean has grown starker. That question “faded” while New Labour was in opposition, he said, but under Cameron it has gone into “bold”.
In one of his most effective passages, Blair said that the Tories had one agenda — what they believe in — and another — “what they think that they have to say to win”. That is not “confusion”, he added: “It is a strategy,” and one that must be exposed between now and polling day.
Cynics, including this one, have occasionally wondered whether Tony Blair truly loves the Labour Party. He is the son of a Tory, and has so often defined his politics by being anti-Labour in the conventional sense that some have even wondered whether he secretly hopes Cameron would win. This would be flattering to Blair in the crudest sense, because it would prove that no one could beat the Tories like him.
It would also be “revenge” on Brown and his circle who tormented him through much of his premiership. Finally, just, perhaps, it would be some kind of “continuation” of Blairism. Meanwhile, the failed rebellions encouraged by so-called “Blairites” — for instance, Stephen Byers — have convinced some that Blair privately wants Brown out.
But no. Not now, at least. Blair has set out where he stands, on the prospect of a fourth term and on the Tories under Cameron. At last and — to some — at the eleventh hour, Tony Blair truly is a Labour man.