Tony Blair on Biden, post-Brexit and getting ‘back to the real world’

London Letter: Ex-PM warns of US concern for Bill and Britain as former great power

Former prime minister Tony Blair: Britain has yet to come to terms with the challenge presented by the loss of global influence Brexit involves. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Micheál Martin's hastily deleted tweet on Tuesday about a conversation with Joe Biden that had yet to happen sapped some of the joy from the fact that he got a call from the president-elect at about the same time as the leaders of the three most powerful countries in Europe.

But the Taoiseach, who is committed to the best possible relationship between Dublin and London, can console himself with the knowledge that his social media mishap gladdened anxious hearts in Downing Street who feared that Biden would overturn the established transatlantic order of precedence.

Boris Johnson was the first leader after Canada's Justin Trudeau to receive a call, ahead of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and the Taoiseach. But in a Zoom call with The Irish Times this week, former British prime minister Tony Blair said Johnson should not read too much into it.

“The first task for Joe Biden as president in foreign policy is to return a sense of normalcy. Phoning the UK prime minister first, that is what American presidents do and so he’s following that convention almost, if you like, or that precedent. It doesn’t mean anything more than that, I don’t think,” he said.


Some in Whitehall interpreted the call to Johnson as evidence that Biden's concerns about the Internal Market Bill, which would allow British ministers to override the Northern Ireland protocol to the Brexit withdrawal agreement, were overblown. But Blair, who has known the president-elect for decades, thinks Downing Street should not underestimate the impact in Washington of allowing the Bill to become law.

Peace process

“I never thought they should have introduced it in the first place, and obviously I think the House of Lords defeat gives you an opportunity to revise that situation. They should take it really seriously. I mean, Joe Biden is a passionate supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland and he will not want anything to disturb that. Now, my assumption is that the UK government gets a deal and that Bill goes away, but if it became a real issue it would be a problem for sure. That is not something that this US president will be indifferent to at all,” he said.

“I am assuming the British government deals with this problem because if they don’t, it will be a problem. That will definitely be a problem.”

British and EU negotiators have been meeting in London this week and talks are expected to resume in Brussels next week after a pause over the weekend. With only a week or two left to reach an agreement, the two sides remain divided on the two biggest sticking points of fisheries and level playing field guarantees of fair competition.

Blair is “75 per cent sure” there will be an agreement, partly because British business is not prepared for the changes required by the thin deal on offer, much less for a no-deal outcome. But he believes Britain has yet to come to terms with the challenge presented by the loss of global influence Brexit involves.

Fishing vs finance

Blair agrees with his predecessor John Major, who said in a speech this week that Britain was no longer a great power and would not be again and that leaving the EU has diminished its role further.

"You don't need some great geopolitical insight to tell you that this one element of what used to be part of Britain's strength with America, namely that bridge between us and Europe, is going to be harder to do because you're outside the European Union, " Blair said.

“Look, we’ve spent several months putting all our negotiating effort into protecting our fishing industry and virtually nothing into protecting our financial service sector. The first is about 0.2 per cent of our GDP [gross domestic product] and the second is a huge part of our economy in which we’re globally pre-eminent.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t try and protect the fishing industry, of course we should. But you know at some point Britain is going to have to get back to the real world, post-Brexit, and start to forge a different future for ourselves. And one of the things that will be important that is for Britain to forge also a strong relationship with Europe outside of Europe because we’re going to need Europe still.”