The return of Tony Blair (2023)



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The former British prime minister, who left Downing Street unpopularly, is back in favor with his Labor party, which hopes his political skills can work to their advantage as the election approaches.

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The return of Tony Blair (1)

ByStephens Slot

Reporting from London

A decade and a half after Tony Blair left Downing Street, one question still defines the former British prime minister in the eyes of many Britons: his disastrous decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq.

When Queen Elizabeth II knighted Blair last year, more than a million people attendedsigned a petitiondemanding that the honor be revoked. And within his own Labor party he remained a complex figure, loathed by those on the far left and grudgingly admired by some who pointed out that he was the only party leader to have won three consecutive British elections.

Today, with the Labor opposition experiencing growing power under its leader,Keir Starmer, Blair is suddenly, and quite surprisingly, back in favor. For Starmer, embracing Blair sends a political message that underlines Labour's turn to the centre. But the former prime minister also has charisma and communication skills that Starmer lacks, assets that could come in handy as the general election approaches.

Last month the two men appeared on stage together and exchanged compliments at a glittering conference organized by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, an organization that works for governments around the world, including autocratic ones, and craft policies that could help the Labor Party if it wins the next election.

Blair, now 70, is grey, thinner and a little gaunter-faced than when he left Downing Street in 2007. But he still held his own effortlessly on stage as he told the audience that Britain would be in good shape. hands if Starmer won the next election.

"It was like an apostolic succession being declared," said John McTernan, a political strategist and former Blair aide, adding that "the chemistry between the two made you think they talked a lot and understood each other."


Jill Rutter, a former civil servant and senior fellow at the Institute for Government, a London-based think tank, said Blair "has clearly been interested in re-establishing himself as a major player in British politics" but Starmer "is the first leader , who seems willing to let him do it."

The right-wing Daily Telegraph was more forceful. "Tony Blair is preparing to rule Britain again and Starmer can leave him," it read.the heading of an opinion piece.

Blair brought Labor to power in a landslide victory in 1997 and was prime minister for a decade, moving the party to the centre, helping to broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland and presiding over an economy strong enough to invest in health and education. .

Men forthe end of his term, and as Iraq descended into chaos, the public had been angry with Blair, who, along with George W. Bush, the President of the United States,had justified the invasionwith unsubstantiated claims that the country had weapons of mass destruction. The invasion sparked years of sectarian violence in Iraq and the rise ofIslamist militant groups that became forerunners of the Islamic State.

Blair's post-Downing Street reputation was further damaged byLucrative consulting work for governments with questionable human rights records., which seems to confirm his affiliation with wealth. Similar questions have also been raised about his institute. London Sunday Times recentlyreportedthat the institute continued to advise the Saudi Arabian government after the massacre of writer Jamal Khashoggi andI was still receiving money from the kingdom.


In a statement, the institute said: "Mr Blair was of the view then and remains firmly of the view now, as he has said publicly, that while the murder of Mr Khashoggi was a terrible crime that should never have happened, it is ongoing program of social and economic change in Saudi Arabia of great significance. enormous and positive significance for the region and the world”.

"The relationship with Saudi Arabia is of vital strategic importance to the West," he added, and "it is therefore justified to remain engaged there."

None of this criticism has stopped a rehabilitation that would have been unthinkable while Labor was led by Starmer's predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist and fierce political opponent of Blair. At the time, Starmer was working with Corbyn, and when Starmer became party leader in 2020, he initially kept Blair at arm's length.

Now their bond is so warm that when the former prime minister recently celebrated his birthday at a London restaurant, Starmer stopped by to wish him well.

"Tony has just moved on after a period where it was almost as if the Labor Party didn't want him around," said Alastair Campbell, a former spokesman for Blair. "I think people end up thinking, 'Say what you want about the guy, but he's good at what he does; continues to be the most credible explanation for difficult situations.'

Some see a modern political parable in Blair's return.

"A lot of politics has now embraced the celebrity narrative," said McTernan, the political strategist, adding: "Tony, as a political celebrity, fell in the public eye, but he's paid back."

"It's not about forgiveness over Iraq, but there is a story arc around Tony," McTernan said, and the British began to "get ready to listen again."


Blair's political rehabilitation has been helped by comparisons with a ruling Conservative party that has presided over political turmoil. Years of deadlock over Brexit were broken thenBoris Johnsonhe won a landslide election in 2019, only to be ousted from Downing Street last year under a cloud of scandal. He was succeeded by Liz Truss, the British Prime Minister withshortest season ever, before Rishi Sunak restored some stability.

"We've had such a succession of failed prime ministers that when you look at someone who dominated the scene, you look back and say, 'He was a pretty dominant prime minister,'" Ms Rutter said.

The institute's findings have also helped change Blair's image, said Campbell, his former spokesman. The former prime minister saw a void for relatively non-ideological research focused on technocratic policy-making and tackling challenges such as artificial intelligence, digital politics and relations with the EU.

With about 800 staff spread across the globe in Abu Dhabi, Accra, San Francisco, Singapore and New York and a sleek, modern office in London's West End, the institute has had an impact even with the Conservative government, Rutter said. . he said, noting Blair's proposal during the coronavirus pandemic to structure his vaccine program around giving as many people as possible a first injection.

Campbell, his former spokesman, added that the institute's work showed Blair in a new light and made money not only for himself but also "to build an organization that people are now seeing the fruits of."

Perhaps the most important question is: what now?


"Does an intervention from Tony help the campaign?" Mr Campbell said of the upcoming election. “In my opinion it would be; that would be good news. But it's a tactical question."

If the Labor Party comes to power, it will open up more opportunities for influence for Blair.

Rutter suggests he built his institute in part because, when he was in Downing Street (which has relatively few staff compared to government agencies), he believed he had very few experts at his disposal.

"The question is whether Blair is content to have an institute to produce reports that a Labor government may or may not want to investigate, or whether he will seek to be more of a power behind the throne," he said.

Mr. Blair, he added, "has tried to accumulate great political capacity; the only problem for him now is that he is not prime minister."

Stephens SlotHe is a London correspondent and writes extensively about Great Britain, including the country's politics and relations with Europe. Mere om Stephen Castle

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