Mr Blair’s return is not the answer, but we need some of his pro-European idealism

Our exclusive poll suggesting the former Prime Minister should come back to lead Labour also points the way – more realistically – to a soft Brexit alliance against Theresa May

Saturday 15 October 2016 18:05 BST
The former Prime Minister, who won three general elections as Labour leader, has said his political future is ‘open to question’
The former Prime Minister, who won three general elections as Labour leader, has said his political future is ‘open to question’ (AFP/Getty)

It is a measure of the weakness of the Leader of the Opposition’s appeal to the British electorate that as many voters say Labour would have a better chance of winning an election if Tony Blair were to return as leader than if Jeremy Corbyn were to continue in post.

The finding of our exclusive ComRes poll today does not suggest that Mr Blair’s return to politics is a serious possibility – indeed, his friend Alastair Campbell explained to the BBC today that the former Prime Minister had no intention of trying to become an MP again: he just wants to “take part in the debate”.

It does, however, emphasise once again the limits of Mr Corbyn’s electoral appeal. Naturally, most of those who say that Labour would be more likely to win under Mr Blair are currently intending to vote for parties other than Labour, the poll finds. But that is the point: if Labour is to win again, it needs a leader and a policy platform that will appeal to those people who are currently intending to vote for parties other than Labour.

However, the question of Mr Corbyn’s leadership is not a live one for the moment, so perhaps we should focus on the pointers in the poll for the state of the policy debate over the next few years. The significant finding is that the British public think it is more important to get a good trade deal with the EU than to cut immigration.

This goes against the grain of everything that Theresa May has said since she became Prime Minister. She insists that the vote on 23 June to leave the European Union was a vote to reduce immigration. Before the negotiations over the terms of Brexit have even started, therefore, she has made it clear that Britain will not be part of freedom of movement for EU workers. She has not said so explicitly, but everyone understands that this means Britain cannot be part of the single market, and that she is prepared to tolerate the costs that this will impose on the British economy in the belief that this is what the British people have voted for.

If it turns out that the British people judge the trade-off between immigration control and the economic interest differently, that suggests there is more scope for the “soft Brexit party” to put pressure on Ms May than previously thought.

Indeed, our poll casts last week’s debates in the House of Commons in a different light. We were impressed by the early showing of the new shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, who trod a thoughtful and positive line between accepting the result of the referendum and accepting Ms May’s right to interpret that mandate as she sees fit.

We were impressed, too, by the principled willingness of several Conservative MPs to make a robust and well-argued case against their own Prime Minister. Kenneth Clarke, a serial former cabinet minister, Nicky Morgan, a recent cabinet minister, Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney General, and Anna Soubry, a voluble advocate of the Remain cause, gave leadership to a Conservative wing of the emerging “soft Brexit” coalition in Parliament.

It is a pity that Mr Corbyn has put himself in such a weak position to lead such a coalition, by his equivocation about the Remain case in the referendum campaign, and by calling for the immediate triggering of Article 50 – the formal two-year process for leaving the EU – on the morning of 24 June. We could have done with some of Mr Blair’s pro-Europeanism then, but his return is not the answer.

What matters now is assembling the widest coalition in Parliament against the extreme anti-immigration, hard-Brexit position that the Prime Minister seems determined to follow. This coalition should not seek to overturn the decision of the British people in the referendum: it should try to secure the kind of soft Brexit that our poll suggests the British people want.

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