After ten years away, the controversial former Prime Minister is back with a plan to save Britain from Brexit.
As Britain enters the jingoistic, ill-tempered final phase of its forty-four-year membership in the European Union, the early years of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, in the late nineteen-nineties, occur in the mind as a painful and unlikely memory. Back then, a young, snaggletoothed Prime Minister took his family on vacations to Tuscany; he addressed the French National Assembly in French; and the country briefly considered discarding the pound for the euro. The love between London and Brussels was never so strong.
The affection waned, on both sides, during Blair’s eventful decade in office. But, when the former Prime Minister sat down with his family—he and his wife, Cherie, have four grown children—in his London town house to watch the results of Britain’s E.U. referendum, last June, he was confident that the country would choose to maintain its single most important international relationship. “I thought in the end, partly for reasons of safety first, people would vote to stay,” he told me recently. As the votes mounted for Brexit, a startled Blair picked up the phone. “I spoke to various people—they should probably remain private, who they were,” he said. “Just to see what on earth we could do.”
Blair stepped down as Prime Minister in June, 2007, less than three months before the first run on a British bank since 1866, leaving behind an overstretched military fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. After handing power to his long-term heir and chancellor, Gordon Brown, he became a kind of roving, Davosian statesman. In 2008, while Brown was consumed by the financial crisis, Blair taught “Faith and Globalization,” a course at Yale. Until 2015, Blair was officially engaged as a peace envoy for the “Quartet”—Russia, the U.N., the U.S., and the E.U.—in the dispiriting search for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. But he also found time to set up a network of consulting companies and foundations under the umbrella of Tony Blair Associates, with staff in twenty countries. Blair’s Windrush Ventures, a government-advisory service, had a turnover of £19.5 million in 2015. Blair himself is paid a reported retainer of two million pounds a year, by the bank JPMorgan. The Guardian estimates that the Blair family’s property portfolio alone is worth twenty-seven million pounds.
During his lucrative wanderings, Blair largely stayed out of domestic politics. Meanwhile, Labour went from running the country to a diminished and divided opposition party under its current left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The Brexit vote, and the attendant rise of populist forces across Europe and the U.S. in the second half of 2016, prompted Blair to reconsider his detachment. “I was always very anxious about the state of the Labour Party and, to a degree, wanted to participate in that,” he said. “But, until Brexit, I didn’t feel there was something that compelled me.”
Blair’s fixation now is to reinvigorate what he calls the “progressive center”—to find policies and arguments that can reassure populations in Europe and the U.S. about the benefits of globalization and the rapid march of technology. He eschews traditional political labels such as left or right, liberal or conservative, preferring the dichotomy “open versus closed” to describe what is happening in the world today. “This is what interests me,” Blair said. “Is it possible to define a politics that is what I would call post-ideological?” Late last year, he rebranded Tony Blair Associates into the new, pro-bono Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in order to pursue this goal. For the first time in a decade, Blair also resumed speaking directly to the British public. In February, he addressed Open Britain, a group formed out of the ashes of last year’s Remain campaign, to encourage the forty-eight per cent of voters who opposed Brexit to “rise up” and overturn the outcome. “I don’t know if we can succeed,” Blair said. “But I do know we will suffer a rancorous verdict from future generations if we do not try.”
Almost a year after the referendum, the country is about to go through with it, embarking on the labyrinthine negotiations to exit the E.U. It is a moment of maximum opportunity or maximum terror, depending on your point of view. Last month, Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, called a snap general election, to be held on June 8th, to shore up support for her hard-line approach to the talks. May has already promised to withdraw the U.K. from the E.U.’s single market, which accounts for half of the country’s trade. Blair, like many in educated and metropolitan circles, is horrified. “It is a catastrophic mistake, and my anxiety is that it will be too late before we realize that,” he said.
The former Labour leader’s position is much clearer than that of Corbyn’s party, which, in attempting to honor the result of the referendum and oppose May’s government at the same time, has ended up confusing many voters. Pushing his own anti-Brexit argument, Blair has emerged as one of the strongest and most regular pro-E.U. voices in the current election campaign. By coincidence, the twentieth anniversary of New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 also fell last week, causing its own ripple of reflections about how the U.K. has changed and what might have been. Blair has not been so ubiquitous since he was in power.
It is impossible not to fantasize about a second coming. British politics, for the most part, is a dingy scene these days, completely dominated by May, a cautious and uneasy figure. The enormousness of Brexit dwarfs its protagonists; Blair liked nothing more than a big occasion. Over the weekend, focus groups carried out by HuffPost U.K. brought back news of a “Tony Blair-shaped hole” in the political landscape. “There is no politician with his rhetorical skills or the ability he once had to connect with the common sense of the time,” James Morris, a pollster, wrote. Blair’s gift, like Bill Clinton’s, was to confound the country’s political boundaries for a time. He inspired a generation of followers in all parties. David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister defenestrated by Brexit, and his chancellor, George Osborne, were both self-confessed Blairites. In private, Osborne used to call Blair “the Master.”
Blair and I met on an unseasonably cold recent morning, at No. 9 Grosvenor Square, the town house that has served as Blair’s London headquarters since he left office. The house, a few hundred yards from the American Embassy, once belonged to John Adams, the second U.S. President and the first Ambassador to Britain. It was decorated in a generic expensive style. Orchids rose from occasional side tables. Behind Blair’s shoulder was a painting of children playing soccer in Africa. Often, he looked past me, to the leaves of the plane trees outside, when considering a question. At one point, Blair, who is sixty-four and tanned, described the harsh choice facing British voters at next month’s election: between the risky Brexit agenda of the Conservatives and the left-wing irrelevance of Corbyn’s Labour. “There are millions of politically homeless people in that scenario,” he remarked. The old antennae twitched.
It is an uncanny thing for British liberals to behold, this return of Blair. You think you are over someone, and then, here he is. Blair has a way of clasping his index finger to his thumb and flicking his hand to underline the point he is making, which, when you see it again, if you are old enough, transports you back fifteen years. More than any other thing, though, it is the sound of him. One of Blair’s defining qualities as a British politician was his indeterminacy: of place, of background, of ideology. And his voice was the ultimate classless artifact. When Blair speaks, he often drops his “T”s—“that” becomes “tha”—which sounds common, but, when he is roused, or giving a televised speech, he often finds a higher, plaintive pitch, like an actor reading Tennyson. “How hideously, in this debate, is the mantle of patriotism abused,” Blair said during his comeback speech, in February.
When we talked, Blair veered, as he always does, between registers: low to high, globalist to colloquial. Of the anti-immigration tenor of the Brexit vote, Blair said, “What is the answer to an unemployed person in the north of Britain, right? It is not stopping a Polish guy from coming in and working in a pub in London.” I was struck by the certainty with which he referred to “the answers.” (On communities unhappy about globalization or the speed of social change: “The answer is to educate, to build the infrastructure, to allow them to be connected to the modern world.”) In 2006, Blair attempted to introduce biometric identity cards in the U.K. but was defeated on civil-rights grounds. He mentioned the policy in passing as a solution to Europe’s refugee crisis. “The answer to that is not to stop immigration,” he said. “The answer is to make sure there are rules.” When I asked Blair to define Blairism, he talked for a moment about equality of opportunity, but his real interest seemed to be in how the formula could be updated forever. “The values are timeless,” he said. “But their method of application should change with time.”
The time that Blair can never move past—for the British public, at least—is early 2003, when he chose to join George W. Bush’s precipitous invasion of Iraq. Two weeks after the Brexit vote, last June, the Chilcot Inquiry, a seven-year investigation into Britain’s role in the conflict, published its findings. Although the inquiry exonerated Blair of the charge that bothers him the most—that the case for war was a lie—much of the 2.6-million-word report was an indictment of his government’s slapdash decision-making and subsequent botched occupation of southern Iraq. “It offers a long and painful account of an episode that may come to be seen as marking the moment when the UK fell off its global perch, trust in government collapsed and the country turned inward and began to disintegrate,” Philippe Sands, a human-rights lawyer, wrote in the London Review of Books.
Blair, naturally, will never accept this. On the day that the Chilcot report was published, he gave his own two-hour press conference, in which he restated his commitment to the invasion. “I believe we made the right decision, and the world is better and safer,” he said. If anything, his years on the diplomacy-and-consulting circuit have only sharpened his (already sharp) conception of what political leadership is supposed to look like. According to Blair, mainstream, centrist parties have failed in the face of Brexit and Trump in part because they are unwilling to speak uncomfortable truths to voters. “The established political class has been so battered, it feels it has to follow political opinion and not lead it,” he said. “Challenging the public is almost something improper.” He holds special scorn for May, who, as Home Secretary, campaigned for Britain to stay in the E.U. last year and is now leading the bitter and potentially calamitous effort to leave. “It is an extraordinary thing to have a premiership defined by a policy you don’t actually believe in,” he said.
Sincerity was Blair’s genius, and we have not forgiven him for it. Some people always thought he was a phony, but most of us wanted Blairism to be true as much as he did. That is why he is a figure of shame for so many British people—not because of what he might have done wrong but because we believed in him so much. Under Blair, it became possible that Britain had found a magical middle way, and could be all things to all people. It could be a home to runaway financial capitalism, and to a responsible welfare state. It could welcome a million Polish migrants and still maintain its sense of humor. It could be European or Atlantic-facing, depending on the topic of conversation. It could join in faraway wars and not heed the consequences.
Brexit was many other things, but it was also the final repudiation of Blairism. The center no longer held, and the country had to choose. It could be open or closed. How the decision plays out will be the central preoccupation of British politics for the next ten years, possibly more. For many British people, especially those who voted to stay in the E.U. and who fear for the future of their country, the return of Blair ought to be the most plausible and exciting thing in the world. He is the best politician in the country by a mile. He has the answers. But he is also Tony Blair. “I am probably not the right person to be saying these things,” he acknowledged at one point during our conversation. “O.K., let someone else say them. But they’re not.”