David Cameron and Tony Blair faced identical tasks earlier this week. Both wished to force a reluctant group of back-sliders to adopt a more robust and pragmatic position.
Cameron wanted Europe to toughen up against Putin. Blair wanted Labour to toughen up against Cameron.
Blair’s opportunity was the 20th anniversary of his enthronement as Labour’s leader. Oddly enough the chief beneficiary of that leadership – the Labour party itself – mysteriously forgot to give its messianic champion a chance to reflect on his methods. Instead, he offered his blueprint for further Labour victories to the think-tank, Progress.
Blair likes to write in the early morning, in long-hand, seated at a window. This speech, clearly the product of many such sessions, was full of optimism, cajolery, hard-headed common sense and double-edged warnings. And it kicked off with an inflammatory sound-bite aimed at the radical left.
‘Old ideas dressed in new clothes are still old ideas and are visibly so when undressed by reality.’
That struck home. The first respondent to the Guardian’s online coverage said, ‘why cant [sic] he just fuck off?’ This was followed by a thousand similar outbursts. ‘Lying hound’, ‘the best PM the Tories ever had’, ‘bring back Blair in chains’, and so on.
Blair restricted himself to generalities and stressed the primacy of ‘individual empowerment’ over ‘collective control’. But he was specific about education. He scolded Labour’s self-harmers for complaining that the Tories’ free school programme is an extension of the academy system pioneered by Lord Adonis and himself. ‘That should be a matter for rejoicing not anguish.’ He urged his party to take on vested interests that oppose reform, ‘otherwise we are the conservatives.’
Conservatives. The insult Blair most loves to use against the unions. Not least because it’s the insult they most loved to use against him.