As the heated British election ends today, the former prime minister has reappeared on the scene and all three candidates are running far from him. Peter Stothard on Blair’s surprising political afterlife. Plus, Alex Massie on his condolences for David Cameron.
The name of Tony Blair, so long forgotten in Britain's too-close-to-call election, is back in the argument as voters brace themselves for the big decision today. The man who has been out of the country for most of the campaign and out of power for the past three years, has reappeared to public view like a swooping spirit of elections past, reviving unwelcome comparisons with his successors, nasty memories of arrogance and Iraq, and all of it mingled with a certain nostalgia for more certain political times.
For most of the past three weeks, it has suited everyone for the man who made the Labour Party electable and led it to three election victories to stay away. For this 2010 poll, the first TV debating contest for the job of prime minister, the fresh-faced Tory leader, David Cameron, and the even fresher-faced Liberal Democrat contender, Nick Clegg, both wanted room to show that they were the true “heirs to Blair,” the men able to create the X-factor excitement that Britons last saw at a polling day in 1997. Both men were deemed debate-winners on their different occasions but only Clegg, virtually unknown when the campaign began, was able to claim he had changed the game by establishing a new level of parity with the big players.
In a less than enthusiastic endorsement of the Conservatives, The Daily Mail cited the fear that Cameron was Blair’s heir as the first reason holding the paper back from a louder clarion call.
Meanwhile, the present prime minister, Gordon Brown, looking further past his sell-by-date with every mold-bringing hour, stuck to his longtime preference for working a room of rats than stand further comparison with his predecessor. When the Labour leader was caught on TV calling a sweet old Labour-supporting lady a bigot because she had dared to raise her doubts about Polish immigration, it was the final reminder of what would never have been allowed to happen in the good old days.
Absence from the fray suited Tony Blair, too. He has a thriving career as an international speaker, and in this predominantly TV election one of the smartest press contributions came from a reporter who followed our traveling statesman to Kuala Lumpur. David Jones of The Daily Mail paid £2,000 to pretend to be a garden-furniture salesman and watch the last man voted into Downing Street earn £350,000 for "Leading the Future Live" speeches on how power was “shifting east” and how in Malaysia “you guys are at the cutting edge of things.” Asked over a special lunch for top-ticket-payers about whether the dust cloud from the Icelandic volcano hadn't given him the perfect excuse to stay away from campaigning, the distinguished visitor had shrugged and said that “I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.” Much easier, it seemed, than attacking Tory and Lib Dem job cuts was the opportunity to share a platform with a man promoting a get-rich-quick Internet scheme and the idea that having a normal job was to be only ‘J O B’, “Just Over Broke.”
No one, however, should be cynical enough to think that this is what Tony Blair truly wants to do these days. There has been not a week since he was forced out of office by Brown in 2007 that he has not thought of what he would do if he had survived the final pressures to depart as he had survived so many of them before. In the final electioneering days, he has even decided to risk damnation for “doing” rather than for “not doing.” The matter of “damnation,” it should be said, is no small one for a man who has a “Faith Foundation” amongst his new interests these days and who on Tuesday wooed a doubtful Lady Mayor by loosening his shirt button to show his bright silver crucifix and getting a “Shake My Hand, Brother” for his effort.
Tony Blair has also blessed his sometime protegee, Jacqui Smith, whose chances of reelection are still damaged by her request that the expenses office of the House of Commons recoup the costs of her husband's TV pornography. He has given interviews telling voters to stick to their principles and not play the incomprehensible British roulette game of voting Liberal Democrat to keep the Conservatives out. He has been mocked as an itinerant faith-healer for having his blood-pressure taken at a public health clinic—and also learnt that the result was “high but not dangerous.” Asked whether his pulse was “better or worse than Gordon's,” he has reminded his questioners that he knew just how “tough” a job it was to be a prime minister.
In response, as though startled by this ghostly rebirth, the present combatants have begun to respond. David Cameron welcomed him back from Kuala Lumpur with a jibe about sun-tanned soft-drink salesmen and the charge that Tony Blair was one of the few people who could now afford to reelect a Labour government. When asked whether he regretted describing himself as “heir to Blair” in 2005, the Tory leader said that if he had indeed “used that phrase,” he certainly regretted it now. In a less than enthusiastic endorsement of the Conservatives, The Daily Mail cited the fear that Cameron was Blair's heir as the first reason holding the paper back from a louder clarion call. Nick Clegg subtly reminded voters of the “Five Pledges” with which the popular Mark One Tony Blair had won his first election, while less subtly drawing attention to unpopular Mark Two Blair's errors in Iraq. Gordon Brown himself, when asked about his plans if he loses, stressed that he had plans in the charitable sector and would not be pursuing an international business career, by which we were to understand him rejecting the economic motivation of Malaysians.
In truth, Gordon Brown may be still be prime minister after election day. Opinion polls, much harder to interpret in the equal three-way contest created by the TV debates, suggest that no party will win outright. The final momentum seems to be with Cameron’s Conservatives but the relevant British rules and conventions have been untested for 40 years. If it is not clear from the vote whom the queen should ask to form the next government the present leader is supposed to survive until the new MPs take their parliamentary seats and the trading of jobs and favors can begin. In some polls, 40 percent of the population claim to want such an outcome.
After his single half-hearted Labour endorsement at the opening of the campaign, Tony Blair’s most insistent contribution to the debate, backed by almost all the British press, is the never-too-late warning that the “hung parliament,” a legislature in permanent gridlock, would be the worst outcome of all. In doing so he has reminded both the nostalgic and the longer-sighted of the way that for 10 years he projected Britain in a world that has increasingly less reason to take notice of us—and of the certainties, for good and ill, that the country has lost since he slipped away abroad.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.