It was hard yesterday to find anyone quite sure about the meaning of Tony Blair “re-engaging” in UK politics, especially as he has already begun to do so quietly.
First the enticing, maximalist, interpretation. In February, Ladbrokes offered the – surprisingly short —odds of 25-1 on him becoming the next Labour leader. But the record – sadly for political drama junkies— does not point to such a spectacular comeback, even if the party would have him. David Lloyd George was talked up during the 20s as a potential second time PM, but it never happened, though he continued to play a dominant role. But Lloyd George remained, as Tony Blair has not, an MP.
And it’s hard to imagine Mr Blair returning to parliament, even, given his disdain for the Upper House, in an elected Lords, if it ever happens. To do so, he would probably have to stop being the international Middle East envoy, which, despite the deadening lack of political progress in the Holy Land, he shows no sign of doing. Moreover, he would surely be reluctant to abandon the flourishing global corporation, both charitable and commercial, that he has built around the Blair brand.
Nevertheless, an enhanced role for Mr Blair will surely be greeted by all three party leaders with mixed feelings. Nick Clegg can hardly be pleased to learn that he has been (sensibly) advising the quite large number of Labour MPs (including Ed Miliband) he has met in recent months that the party should be escalating its attack on the “hopeless” position of the Liberal Democrats. So too for David Cameron. The talk is of future Blair interventions being “above party politics” (Will he be tempted to campaign for the union, having ushered in the legislation that got us here?). But he shows no sign of leaving Labour, and will lead a big fundraiser for it in July. Given how closely the Prime Minister has modelled himself on the man, having a more active Blair on the other side could be a serious irritation.
But for Ed Miliband, it could also be a mixed blessing. True, Mr Blair is said to have echoed Margaret Thatcher’s (largely unfulfilled) promise not to be a “back seat driver.” And he could go some way to reassuring doubters in the business community. But Iraq remains a huge problem, including in some of the Middle England, whose support he used so brilliantly to court. So too does the unhealthily close relationship with Rupert Murdoch.
The real question is how far, after four years of global jet-setting, he has retained his legendary ability to read the country and, now, the post-crash zeitgeist. His memoirs suggest that the great revisionist was deeply reluctant to revise his views either on the failures of regulation or of the unforeseen growth of wealth inequality. He has supposedly come closer to the Balls/Miliband view of the importance of growth. But it is far from certain that he can sustain his support for Labour without letting the differences show.