Back in the thick of it: Tony Blair’s journey from quiet man to back-seat driver

The former PM’s remarks are an ominous sign for Ed Miliband

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Indy Politics

In the six years since he left Downing Street, Tony Blair has largely kept out of Labour’s internal debates. He did not want to be the “back-seat driver” Baroness Thatcher became for her successor John Major, regularly causing the Conservatives to crash amid bitter infighting.

The joke in the Blair inner circle was that he had to “leave the country” to avoid accusations of hovering over his successor Gordon Brown, taking up a post as a Middle East peace envoy and travelling widely. His radio silence on domestic politics came at a price, Mr Blair believes, allowing some of his opponents to rewrite history and trash his record without much comeback. It became increasingly frustrating.

A year ago, Mr Blair held an amicable meeting with Ed Miliband, who casts his net widely for advice from Labour’s senior figures. The former Prime Minister expressed a desire to re-enter the domestic political debate rather than limit his interventions to foreign affairs.

Mr Miliband got the impression that Mr Blair would not rock his boat in doing so. If that was promised, then this phase of Mr Blair’s re-entry ended suddenly, when he launched a barely-coded attack on the Miliband project.

Mr Blair has now gone public with what he has been saying in private for some time. He is dubious about Mr Miliband’s desire to shift the centre ground to the left and worried that Labour is missing an opportunity to colonise it at a time when the Conservatives appear to be veering right on welfare and immigration, abandoning David Cameron’s “compassionate Conservatism” and preparing to fight a 2015 election on a pledge to let the Tories finish the job of clearing the deficit (while saying Labour can’t be trusted on the economy). Mr Blair’s emphasis on voters wanting “strong leadership” in troubled economic times points at Labour’s other potential weak spot.

The former Prime Minister buttoned his lip when Mr Miliband pronounced New Labour dead and said the party had to “move on” from both old and New Labour. When he announced the birth of One Nation Labour last September, Mr Blair wondered what it meant but gave his successor the benefit of the doubt. He still regards the vision as very hazy.

Mr Blair will not want to be seen as a bitter former leader who rains on Mr Miliband’s parade. He will probably be hoping the Labour leader takes his criticism in his New Statesman article on board so that he doesn’t need to repeat it. But his move is highly significant and, perhaps, an ominous sign for Mr Miliband. “His absence from the debate has damaged him,” one friend of Mr Blair said. “He is signalling that he is now going to adopt a different tack.”

Mr Miliband is his own man with his own project and his own timescale. There is an intense debate between him and Ed Balls, the powerful shadow Chancellor, about when Labour should declare its hand on policy and, crucially, how it would tackle the deficit. The two men would be wrong to think Mr Blair and his remaining followers are the only people who think Labour needs to go further and faster in saying what it would do in 2015 rather than merely attack the Coalition Government. A sizeable chunk of Labour MPs would agree. So would some Shadow Cabinet members.

Mr Blair’s intervention is well-timed in that these rumblings have grown since last month’s Budget. Labour was in attack mode because Mr Balls is convinced George Osborne’s economic strategy is failing, but the Opposition again said little about what it would do instead. Last week Labour was thrown on to the defensive about welfare when Mr Osborne tried to milk the Mick Philpott case. Some Labour MPs expressed concern that it is becoming the “benefits party”, on the wrong side of public opinion. A barely-formed idea to strengthen the contributory principle was floated. Labour’s welfare problem would have been a much bigger story this week if Margaret Thatcher had not died.

“In 2015, we might look back on these last few weeks as the moment we lost the election,” one Labour MP said. “We should listen to Blair. We have been warned.”

Big test: Ex-PM’s questions for Ed

What is driving the rise in housing benefit spending, and if it is the absence of housing, how do we build more?

How do we improve the skillset of those who are unemployed when the shortage of skills is the clearest barrier to employment?

How do we take the health and education reforms of the last Labour government to a new level, given the huge improvement in results they brought about?

What is the right balance between universal and means-tested help for pensioners?

How do we use technology to cut costs and drive change in our education, health, crime and immigration systems?

How do we focus on the really hard core of socially excluded families, separating them from those who are just temporarily down on their luck?