Tony Blair was the headline act at his day-long talking-shop in London yesterday. The crowds attending the Future of Britain Conference had to sit through hours of speeches and panel discussions before the old groover himself popped up at 4pm for a 30-minute chat with Jon Sopel.
‘I’m so grateful to everyone for hanging about to wait for me,’ he quipped. And he admitted that he’d suffered a wobble the previous night:
‘There was a time in the early hours when I thought, God, another of your bright ideas.’
Who did he mean by God? Not himself, surely. Sopel raised the issue that obsesses many fretful centrists: Will Blair rescue the country by starting a new party?
‘There are two main parties in Britain,’ he said, ‘I don’t see that changing.’
He ducked the chance to clobber the Tory government. ‘Not everything they do is wrong. There’s no harm in admitting that.’ He described the Chancellor’s attempts to soften the cost-of-living crisis as ‘a reasonable package…but getting households to switch to renewables, to insulate, to move to a cleaner, greener future – there’s no plan in place.’
He was similarly mild in his criticism of Sir Keir Starmer. He reminded us that when he took charge of Labour, in 1994, his predecessors had been John Smith and Neil Kinnock. ‘Keir has had a tougher time of it, mentioning no names.’
Perhaps he made a Freudian slip when he said: ‘Keir has done an amazing job, pulling the party back from where it is.’ He probably meant ‘from where it was’. The present tense suggests that Labour remains shackled by the arid and introspective wars over identity politics. He repeated this concern, again in code, when he said, ‘sometimes it’s not just about going with the flow, it’s about resisting it as well.’ And he warned of a ‘massive gap’ between what ordinary people are thinking and ‘what politics is debating.’
This has implications for Labour. To ‘seal the deal’ at the next election the party must ‘get a policy agenda where you’re making changes and where people think, yeah, that’s going to make my life better.’ To turn those policies into ‘a message of hope and optimism should not be beyond the wit of politicians.’ Yet it seems to be beyond the wit of Labour’s current leadership.
Blair put the same point in different terms. ‘The art of politics is to make the arguments sing.’ If he believes Sir Keir is a choirboy of genius, he kept that to himself. He hinted at a looming danger for Labour. Having seen the Conservatives suffer two thumping by-election defeats, the party may embrace the goalhanger strategy. It’s not enough, said Blair, to hope that an anti-Tory alliance will sweep Sir Keir to power. To win, even as part of a coalition, ‘the Labour party has to be electable in its own right.’
Blair showed little appetite for a personal return to Westminster. He seems to be enjoying himself too much. ‘One thing that’s shocking to me is how much I’ve learned since leaving office’. He used a homely metaphor to describe the eccentric nature of democracy:
‘Politics is weird because it’s the only business where you give a really important position to someone with no qualifications. Imagine choosing a new Liverpool coach: you wouldn’t wander into the Kop and say, I want the most enthusiastic fan. That’s insane. But that’s what we do in politics.’
In other words, we may be desperate for him to come back and save us but it won’t happen. He’s just too good for politics.