18 February 2017

The fall and fall of Tony Blair


In a time of division and dissension, it’s comforting to know that there’s one thing around which Britain can unite – namely, hating Tony Blair.

Yesterday, the former Prime Minister intervened in the Brexit debate, with a speech urging the people to “rise up” against the referendum result and prevent Britain leaving the European Union. It’s fair to say it didn’t go down well. As Andrew Lilico observed on CapX, it’s one thing to say that that voters made a mistake, and quite another to call for their decision to be disregarded.

But it’s not just Blair’s opinions that people don’t like. They don’t like him, full stop. Back in November, YouGov asked a sample of voters for their views on a host of political figures. The findings on Blair were, to put it politely, brutal.

The man who won three elections is now less popular than Jeremy Corbyn – less popular, in fact, than anyone listed apart from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Blair is regarded “very favourably” by only 2 per cent of the population. Three quarters of the population have a very or somewhat negative view of him and just one in seven a positive one.

And the remarkable thing is the way this crosses demographic boundaries. Rich or poor, young or old, English or Scots, Remain or Leave – there is no group in which Blair has anything approaching a base of support. As you might expect, he scores highest among Labour voters. But even there, twice as many actively hate him as in any way like him.

There are all kinds of reasons for this. Blair led us into war in Iraq on false pretences – either out of wilful blindness or a cynical desire to keep in with the Americans.

He opened the door to unrestricted immigration, paving the way for the rise of Ukip and ultimately the Brexit vote. The boom years over which he presided ended shortly afterwards in a spectacular bust.

And aside from his futile efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, he spent his post-premiership living the jet-set lifestyle, occasional descending from Davos to lecture the rest of us on where we were going wrong.

But the collapse in his appeal is still startling and significant.

Startling when you consider quite how popular he was – if you’ve forgotten, just look at this messianic party political broadcast from the 1997 election campaign (and compare it with its Tory equivalent). Even as late as 2010, his autobiography was still a publishing sensation.

And significant because it’s not just Blair who is unpopular, but everything associated with him.

When Tom Bower published his scathing biography of the former PM last year, I asked him whether there was anything positive Blair had done. He thought for a while, then replied: “No.” (Although he did then qualify that by saying that he had made Britain a more tolerant place.)

But uncomfortable as it is for his detractors to admit it, Blair did get many of the big calls right.

He moved the Labour Party away from socialism and towards an embrace of the market. He recognised the value of capitalism and wealth creation. He came, belatedly, to see the need for the introduction of choice and competition into public services to drive up standards, even if he could never get Gordon Brown to agree.

Even before Brexit, I noted how oddly peripheral Blair seemed to be to British politics – not least because the party modernised by Mandelson now had a leader who preferred to quote Enver Hoxha.

Yet we need to be careful not to throw the liberal baby out with the Blairite bathwater. Theresa May has, as George Trefgarne pointed out on CapX, brought stability and discipline to government. But as Matt Chorley noted for the Times (£), she is a doer, not a sayer – a workhorse (in the New York Times’s phrase), not a show pony.

Those polling figures suggest that whatever Tony Blair tries to sell, there are few who will now listen.

But politics still needs its evangelists – people who can make the case, as Blair did at his best, for the kind of liberal economics and policies that will make Britain, and the world, a better place. Especially if the alternative is a situation in which the most charismatic figures are those with the worst ideas.

This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing. To subscribe, sign up here.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX