Out-of-office replies: how former PMs become thorns in their party's side

If ever there were a leader entitled to destabilise his successor, it was Tony Blair

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Tony Blair is the former Prime Minister who has behaved best towards his successors in recent history. Why, this week he even donated £106,000 of his own money to help Labour candidates win in 106 marginal seats.

It was Ted Heath who started the tradition of the post-prime-ministerial sulk. He remained in the House of Commons after Margaret Thatcher deposed him for the whole of her time as leader, grumbling.

He did her little damage, though, because he had not been a notably successful Prime Minister himself, and she was more in tune with the views of the party and the country on Europe than he was. Unexpectedly, it was a Conservative leader from longer ago who wounded her. In 1985 Harold Macmillan, as Lord Stockton, attacked her policy of privatisation with one of those quotations which is nothing like the form in which it is usually rendered. We remember him for accusing her of “selling off the family silver”, but what he actually said was a thousand times more novelistic: “It is very common with individuals or estates when they run into financial difficulties to find that they have to sell some of their assets. First, the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go.”

Thatcher herself then behaved badly towards her successor, first anonymously and then increasingly openly siding with the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party who laid siege to John Major’s pragmatic premiership. Although there is no evidence she ever claimed New Labour or Tony Blair as her proudest legacy – a comforting myth for Labour’s so-called left – she did say at a “private dinner” before the 1997 election: “Tony Blair is a man who won’t let Britain down.”

Major caused his Tory successors no trouble until recently. For a long time he was the forgotten man of the party’s history, but two years ago his reputation as a good loser who made post-politics money more discreetly than the man who beat him turned him into the hero of the left, when he accidentally supported Ed Miliband’s policy on energy prices and inadvertently described David Cameron’s rise to the top as “truly shocking”. Actually, he said: “In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

But it was the Blair-Brown rivalry that produced the most difficult test of post-prime-ministerial discipline. By the time Blair left office it was well known that Gordon Brown had plotted against and harried him for years. If ever there were a leader entitled to destabilise his successor, it was Blair. Yet he showed superhuman restraint. One early email went astray in which Blair confided in a friend that he thought that if Brown continued to deviate from New Labour he would lose (he was not wrong). But Blair’s memoir, in which he accused Brown of threatening him, showing the “truly nasty side of politics”, was not published until after Brown did actually lose.

Then it was Brown’s turn to show restraint. This time, his successor had the opposite problem from the usual one. Ed Miliband wanted to avoid being seen as Brown’s creature. I am told that he had to fend off Brown’s offer to serve in his shadow cabinet as shadow international development secretary.

Since 2010, Blair’s restraint has continued, however. He would have preferred David Miliband to have won the leadership contest, and he has continued to say that elections are won in the centre ground, which is what he has always believed, while Ed Miliband has pursued the opposite strategy. There was a fuss at the start of the year when he repeated his observation that if “a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party”, the contest will have “the traditional result”. He had said it before, in October, but was obviously pleased with it, and it filled a news cycle vacuum with a “Blair says Miliband will lose” story.

Actually, he has been completely loyal to the party. Mostly, when he has spoken about British politics, it has been to attack Ukip and to defend Britain’s membership of the EU. One thing on which he and Miliband agree is that a referendum on Britain’s EU membership is a bad idea.

Now Blair has gone further, giving money to Labour candidates for this election campaign. A careful donation, this ought to insulate Blair somewhat from the rage of hate that still grips parts of what likes to call itself the left. Naturally, those who are determined to find fault have noticed that he failed to mention Ed Miliband by name in his letters to the constituencies. That is looking for code unnecessarily. The hidden message of this donation is easy to read: if Ed Miliband loses, he cannot blame me.

Old hand finds a new cause in an independent Scotland

Talking of Tony Blair, I came across part of his early history this week.

The latest constituency polls in Scotland carried out for Michael Ashcroft confirm that the Scottish National Party revolution is not going to abate before the election. The party is heading for a sweep of 56 of the 59 Scottish seats.

When I posted about this on Twitter this week, I was surprised to receive a reply from Les Huckfield. He was the Tony Benn supporter who was beaten by Blair for the Labour nomination in Sedgefield in 1983. He had been Labour MP for Nuneaton, but went on what was known as the “chicken run” when the boundaries were redrawn and it looked as if Labour would lose the seat (it did).

A right-wing minister in the 1974-79 government, he reinvented himself as a founder of the Socialist Campaign Group, which aimed to establish “socialism in one country”. In 1980, he successfully proposed a motion at Labour’s National Executive to ban all car imports.

After failing to find another seat in 1983 he became an MEP for five years, and now, aged 72, he lives in Auchterarder in Scotland. His Twitter account proudly carries a “45” badge.

He welcomed my prediction of an SNP landslide, saying: “England, get over it!”

He said he was “still very much around – and hoping that Nicola [Sturgeon] will lead us  to independence”.

So that is what happens to old English hard lefties. They have gone to Scotland to help to break up the Union.