There aren’t that many people in politics who predicted a Conservative majority – the revelation that George Osborne promised to snog Lynton Crosby if it happened shows how outlandish a prospect it seemed – but one of them who correctly foresaw the outcome of the general election was Tony Blair, I understand. Weeks before polling day, he told friends that the case for David Cameron to ease back into Downing Street without the support of the Liberal Democrats was clear because Ed Miliband and Ed Balls had failed to win the economic argument with voters. The Lib Dem vote was so clearly going to collapse beyond all recognition, he reasoned, the SNP had such a groundswell of support, and, crucially, Middle England did not like the Miliband offer – with these three certainties, how could the Tories not win outright? This electoral algebra seems so obvious now, of course, but Blair, having done a few sums with voters over the years, could see it before 7 May when most of the rest of us couldn’t.
In public, Blair was never this honest: he always said Miliband “can win”, although this was usually qualified with a warning to stay in the centre ground. Should he have spoken out months before the election, or would he just have been accused of vindictively undermining the Labour leader? Of course, Blair is, to many people, damned whatever he does or says. When he stood down as the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East last week, the criticism was near-unanimous. He had failed to secure peace in the Middle East after eight years, the critics said, which was not surprising because it was his fault there was no peace there anyway. This assessment, concluded by normally balanced people, was a gigantic, toppling trifle of fallacy, layer of inaccuracy heaped upon wobbling layer.
Blair’s job was never a “peace” envoy – this was beyond the narrow remit of the Quartet role – but to secure investment in the Palestinian territories, to use his contacts with the Israelis to help ease blockages for certain projects such as mobile telephone networks and a water treatment site in Gaza. He was envoy to the Middle East – that is, Israel and Palestine, where the lack of lasting peace does not date back to Blair’s time as prime minister, nor even to his period as a long-haired rock singer at Oxford, but to well before then. His geographical remit did not stretch to Syria, Iraq and Libya. Yes, Blair and his government made mistakes in Iraq – he himself admits the post-war rebuilding was badly mishandled. But to conflate this with his inability to stimulate investment in the West Bank is just naive and not borne out by the achievements, however small, made in IT and infrastructure. The Palestinian economy is still in a crisis state, but this is because of Israeli blockades and bad governance inside the territories, not because of Blair.
If Blair is disappointed today with his record as Quartet representative, his mistake dates back to 2007, when he left Downing Street. In the days before he stood down, he spoke of an abiding mission to improve dialogue between different religions – a mission keenly supported by his wife, Cherie, and one that turned into his Faith Foundation. If he had kept to this mission alone, or had taken the Quartet representative job and nothing else, he may have been able to rebuild his reputation. Instead he took on so many conflicting roles that even those who admired his ability to win general elections, as I do, find it difficult to stomach the tangled financial arrangements, the Kazakh despot and the other gold-plated murk. Through his ability to glide into any head of state’s bling-soaked palace or bougainvillea-draped veranda, Blair thought he could stray beyond the confines of his Quartet role – so maybe he regards himself as a failure.
Now he has left his Middle East job, he should devote his time to one big mission rather than a portfolio of interests. His unrivalled record as Labour’s most successful leader should be heeded by the current leadership candidates, and he is right to urge the party to camp in the centre ground. But the bigger role he can take on is the fight for Britain to remain in the European Union, which is surely the most serious issue facing the country over the next five years. This is Blair’s chance to restore his legacy.
Keep on clapping
On his last appearance in the Commons in 2007, Blair memorably received a spontaneous and rule-breaking round of applause, which the then Speaker, Michael Martin, let go because it was so rare. When many of the new 56 SNP MPs clapped their Westminster leader Angus Robertson during last week’s Queen’s Speech debate, John Bercow slapped them down for breaking convention.
Yet if the Commons is to be seen as more in touch with the real world, surely the current Speaker, who has made great play of modernising Parliament, should push for a change in the rules? Clapping is a very human, natural response, and far more polite than the shouting and braying that is allowed. Let the applause stay.
The magic of the AGM
There’s no room here to go into a detailed analysis of what’s wrong with Fifa and Sepp Blatter, so I will say only this: surely an organisation that splurges money on a lavish and self-regarding opening ceremony for what is basically its AGM is obviously not fit for purpose.
I grew up in one city, Liverpool, and now live in another, London. So I cannot pretend to be versed in country things. This was all too obvious in North Yorkshire last weekend when I spotted a newborn calf in a field that seemed to have become separated from its mother and the rest of the herd. The calf did not move for more than an hour. Was it dead?
After a few phone calls I tracked down the farmer, who came out to see what the matter was. The calf probably just needs a little gentle shove, he said, stroked it on its back, and the animal was roused. I sloped off feeling guilty that I’d dragged the farmer out for no reason. Yet maybe the calf would have died without my intervention – we will never know. The only thing that was hurt was my pride, which is no bad thing.