Richard Heller says Tony Blair has now become the Gloria Swanson of British politics, ready for his close-up in a comeback movie nobody wants to make.
I’m afraid I missed seeing Tony Blair’s gracious congratulations to Jeremy Corbyn on Labour’s election result. I believe it appeared in a few early editions of The Rabbit Fanciers Gazette.
He and Peter Mandelson had a simple script. It was rather like the plot of The Producers. With an “impossible” leader in Jeremy Corbyn, and “impossible” policies, Labour would be humiliated. The shattered party would then humbly beg Blair and his acolytes to return and restore its fortunes.
But like The Producers the plot went horribly wrong. Corbyn induced over twelve million people to vote Labour – more than Blair achieved in two elections as an incumbent Prime Minister. Blair by then had charmed, neutered or suborned much of Britain’s mainstream media. Corbyn endured the fiercest media attacks ever thrown at a Labour leader.
Corbyn’s success has doomed Blair’s hopes of release from his current life of moneyed impotence. Blair would be less than human not to find this galling. He is nearly five years younger than Jeremy Corbyn. He is only a little older than Clem Attlee when he won his landslide victory in 1945. Of course Blair feels that he has something more to offer British politics.
But it was his choice to walk away from them and hawk himself all over the world to make money from the knowledge and connexions he made as Prime Minister. There is no need to give him the privileged re-entry for which he still longs.
Tony Blair could have remained an MP like his three predecessors as Labour Prime Minister. Jim Callaghan stayed on for eight years, Harold Wilson for seven, Clem Attlee for four (until he was 72). Gordon Brown stayed in the House of Commons for a full term. Just by being there, they showed respect for their constituents and confirmed the principle that election to Parliament is the paramount qualification for political office in the UK.
Blair could also have taken a seat in the House of Lords. In either House, he could have influenced national debate on any issue, defended his own record, championed new issues and policies, and questioned his successors in government.
In Parliament Blair could have expected, informally, a little more time and attention than other backbenchers. But otherwise he would have had no special status or privileges. He would have to take part in debates on the same terms as his colleagues, and be ready to meet challenges and interventions. Neither House takes kindly to members who drop in occasionally to hand down oracular wisdom and expect to be admired for it.
As an MP or peer, Blair would have found it much harder to conduct his lucrative globetrotting and he would have had to give some account of his earnings on the Register of Interests in either House. In the Lords, this is not an onerous requirement (as Peter Mandelson would confirm). The Lords rules allow peers ample scope to conceal their paymasters, and how much they are paid, and what for.
In a rare display of self-examination, Blair recently admitted to The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley that people had been repelled by his money-making activities since leaving office. The admission required a characteristic tortured procession of negatives: “I’m not saying I haven’t made mistakes in that because I think I did.” He then claimed to have spent “the vast bulk” of his time on pro-bono charitable work and that reports of his personal wealth are vastly exaggerated.
Blair could put this matter beyond doubt, and prove that he wants to be taken seriously again as a political force by opening his accounts and publishing a complete list of all the payments he has received from each source and of what he did to earn them. We should introduce a similar rule for all ex-Cabinet Ministers during their lifetime, whether or not they are in either House, since so many of them have taken to treating the Cabinet as a waiting room for the gravy train.
In or out of Parliament, Blair could have remained active within the Labour party. He could have made speeches to local parties for nothing instead of charging six-figure sums to rich foreign admirers. He could have accepted invitations to the usual barbecues and socials and chicken dinners. He might thereby have learnt to make a better defence of his record as a Labour Prime Minister than in his long memoirs, where the minimum wage gets far less attention than the opening night of the Millennium Dome.
Blair might also have given his party some of his money. According to the Electoral Commission, he gave £27,000 to David Miliband’s unsuccessful bid for the leadership. Since then he has donated nothing to Labour nationally or locally or to any Labour figure.
Whatever he thought of Corbyn and the national Labour campaign, Blair could have shown some support for his excellent and successful local Labour candidate, Karen Buck. But no Labour poster appeared in the many windows of his London home. (Incidentally, the same was true of Peter Mandelson’s opulent home in the neighbouring constituency where Keir Starmer was re-elected. Mandelson has given no money to Labour anywhere since he left office in 2010.)
Blair is still asking for the right to guide the Labour party for which he has done nothing since leaving office. He wants to influence national politics without any accountability to either House of Parliament or to the normal standards of public life.
His recent interviews show no understanding of why he personally has become political halitosis to so many causes and how he contributed to Labour’s choice of Jeremy Corbyn and to the country’s vote for Brexit. That is not only because of Iraq, where he still cannot admit that he made bad decisions even after the devastating criticisms of the Chilcot report. It was also reaction against a style of government which quailed and crawled before money and power (especially if they were named Rupert Murdoch) and which regularly showed itself indifferent to the truth.
Blair has now become the Gloria Swanson of British politics, ready for his close-up in a comeback movie nobody wants to make.
As they say in show business, “leave your name, but not with us.”