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Editorial: Back-seat driving is a risky business, especially for Tony Blair

The former PM was positively Trappist during the Brown years. Not anymore

Tony Blair must decide. Is he to be a global philanthropist and consultant to governments of doubtful repute, or a back-seat driver in domestic politics making life difficult for Ed Miliband? The death of Margaret Thatcher – with its vivid exposure of the long political shadow cast by a party’s former leaders – should assist him in his choice.

Baroness Thatcher set a disgraceful example of disloyalty to her successor. John Major bore her interfering with almost saintly restraint, and answered in the best way possible, by winning the 1992 election with the largest number of votes for a single party ever. But the damage done to the Conservative Party by her meddling and her myth-making was deep and lasting.

Mr Blair, to his credit, took a different course – at least initially. He was positively Trappist during Gordon Brown’s three years in Downing Street. Instead, he focused his efforts on mostly laudable causes: Palestinian state-building, inter-faith dialogue, African governance and the mitigation of climate change. If none of these has been notably successful, Mr Blair can, at least, hardly be blamed for trying.

Since Mr Brown’s departure from the stage three years ago, however, the Labour Party’s most electorally successful leader has been more publicly opinionated about British politics. Now, his interventions are increasing, in their regularity and in their bite.

In fact, there is little in Mr Blair’s article in the centenary edition of the New Statesman, published yesterday, that has not been said before, either in his memoirs or in speeches and interviews since. But the man whose tenure introduced the term “spin doctor” to the political lexicon understands journalism well enough to know what kind of response such an article would provoke. Furthermore, he understands politics well enough to know how difficult it will make the task of the Labour leader.

Mr Blair knows, for example, that describing Labour as being “back as the party opposing ‘Tory cuts’, highlighting the cruel consequences of the Conservative policies on welfare and representing the disadvantaged and the vulnerable” is a sharp criticism of Mr Miliband’s position on the benefits reforms that come into effect this month. In particular, he suggests that the Labour leadership made a mistake in allowing the Government to paint the party as the defender of the benefits lifestyle of Mick Philpott. Mr Miliband was entitled to respond that he would lead the party “in my own way”.

If Mr Blair wishes to imitate Lady Thatcher in gaining a reputation for bitterness and self-aggrandisement at the expense of his own party, then this is the way to do it. That said, the passing of Lady Thatcher might assist Mr Miliband in one way, at least. His House of Commons tribute to so divisive a political opponent was commendably statesmanlike – enough, he will hope, to convince the doubters that he is of prime ministerial material and to arm him against the needles of his predecessor.

Labour’s divisions are not as deep as those Lady Thatcher stoked in the Conservative Party. But they are still potentially damaging. Mr Blair is entitled to express his view, and it is difficult to disagree with his urging Mr Miliband not to “tack right” on immigration and Europe. His assessment that Labour ought not to “settle back into its old territory of defending the status quo” is also pertinent. Mr Miliband does seem too ready to do so.

But the former Labour leader will face the accusation that he is sabotaging a successor who was not his first choice. Worse, he risks allowing his personal concerns to trump those of his party – just as Lady Thatcher did.