Brexit terms may change stance of British people, Blair says
‘This is obviously a matter of great sadness,’ former British prime minister says of EU exit
Labour former prime minister Tony Blair: “The reality of this election, if the polls are right, is that the Tories will win.” Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Twenty years after Tony Blair swept into Downing Street on May 1st, 1997, liberal England is going through a small bout of nostalgia for Cool Britannia. Teenage fans of Britpop, now entering early middle age, are caught between melancholy and bitterness as they contrast the optimism of those years with today’s grim political reality.
Blair led an unprecedented 418 Labour MPs into the House of Commons at the start of a hegemony for his party that was to last 13 years. Labour now has 229 MPs but if the polls are right, their number after the election on June 8th could be smaller than Blair’s 1997 majority of 179.
At 63, the former British prime minister acknowledges that he looks a lot older now, but in his Mayfair office last week he appeared upbeat and energetic, looking trim in a white, open-necked shirt and a dark, well-cut suit. After a number of years combining the role of a Middle East peace envoy with his more fruitful stewardship of a global consultancy, Blair has returned to the public eye in Britain over the past year.
The Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war revived memories of the darkest chapter of Blair’s premiership, prompting him to express “sorrow, regret and apology” for mistakes in the planning and prosecution of the war. But it was Britain’s decision last year to leave the European Union which has brought him back into the centre of public discourse, as an outspoken critic of Brexit and Theresa May’s approach to it.
“It is the dominant issue in British politics. As someone who believed that Britain should play a strong role in Europe, this is obviously a matter of great sadness,” he says.
“There is a mood in Britain at the moment of ‘Just get on with it’, even among some people who voted Remain. But I still think there is a long way to go in this debate because it is not so simple as just getting on with it.”
Blair endorses Labour’s latest position on Brexit, which is to make its decision on the basis of the final deal and to hold May to her claim that she can negotiate a deal from the EU which will give Britain the same economic benefits it enjoys now. He believes, however, that her decision to leave the single market makes such a deal impossible because a free-trade agreement with a “third country” cannot replicate the advantages of the single market.
“I’m not saying the will of the people should be defied. I’m saying the will of the people may change once they see the actual terms. I use this analogy of a house swap: you might agree in principle that you are going to buy this other house. But we haven’t seen it yet and we haven’t done the survey and we haven’t looked at the neighbourhood,” he says.
He is sceptical about speculation that an enhanced Conservative majority will give the prime minister more leeway to compromise in negotiations with the EU. He points out that Brexit is not only at the centre of her campaign message but also at the heart of her electoral strategy.
“I don’t think we should be under any doubt at all as to what the Tories are doing in this campaign. They’re collapsing the Ukip vote into theirs, and they’re going after the Leave vote from Labour. Now that doesn’t strike me as a strategy designed to give you an easier ride on Brexit,” he says.
Since the start of the campaign, Blair has made a number of statements suggesting that voters should make their choice on the basis of Brexit. But he insists that this does not amount to a call for tactical voting, and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will not make him abandon Labour.
“For me this is a matter of my tribe, I’m Labour. But I think, like I have said recently, that the reality of this election, if the polls are right, is that the Tories will win. She will remain prime minister. The question is: do you have a sufficiently strong opposition to hold them to account, whether Labour or Lib Dem or whatever?” he says.
Blair is confident that the early issues in the negotiations, over the rights of citizens and Britain’s financial obligations, will be resolved without too much difficulty. And he believes that both sides are committed to finding a way to keep the Border with Northern Ireland open and to protect the legacy of the Belfast Agreement. It is on Britain’s future relationship with the EU that he believes May’s hopes are unrealistic and he warns against underestimating the enduring strength of the EU.
He believes that 21st century geopolitics have renewed the EU’s purpose as, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the size of a country’s population is starting to determine the size of its economy, fuelling the emergence of China and India as economic giants.
“For the Europeans, even for Germany, and France and the UK, we’re going to be medium-size countries. The only way we defend our interests and our values is together. This is the rationale for Europe, it’s not about peace today, it’s about power,” he says.
He is heartened by French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s embrace of a modernising message similar to his own and he believes that such a course is the only one that can help Labour to emerge from its current malaise.
“It’s very important to work out what has changed in 20 years and what hasn’t changed. Lots of things have changed. But the single thing that’s changed the most is change itself, and that’s accelerated. So the spirit and attitude that gave rise to New Labour is more relevant today, not less relevant. That’s why the left has got to be more inventive and creative and innovative, not retreat into a kind of old-fashioned conservatism with a small c,” he says.