He is, for many, thoroughly damaged goods. But if anyone can pull off the big political comeback, it’s the former Labour prime minister
In an interview with Esquire magazine, Tony Blair said it was “an open question”. And with every day and every month that goes by, you can understand why he just might: why a former prime minister, who has been out of British public life for almost 10 years now, might be tempted to return to the frontline of UK politics.
At the most basic level there is the chaotic state of the Labour party, of which the latest leadership election and now the shadow cabinet appointments are continuing proof. If nothing else, Blair brought the fractious party together, by dint of ditching clause IV and, more importantly, winning.
Then there is the direction of Corbyn’s Labour party, the open rift between some of the grassroots and the parliamentary party, and the way Blair’s prized centre ground has now been ruthlessly grabbed by Theresa May. You can almost hear Blair crying out in frustration at the lack of anywhere for centrist Labourites to go. He might even be sensing the hand of history once again on his shoulder: might he step forward to save the soul of New Labour, even at the risk of a formal split?
And the last straw was surely Brexit. Memories of Blair’s youthfully optimistic first months as prime minister have faded. But this was a time, pre-9/11, pre-Iraq, when the UK had a prime minister who believed in Europe, who dared to try out his school French in public, who spent holidays there without shame, and who contemplated the UK in the euro.
In retrospect, that time can be seen as the high-water mark of UK Europeanism. Post-referendum, no British politician has been found to speak up for the UK in Europe. Even model-European Nick Clegg has been quiet. If not me, Blair might reasonably be arguing with himself, then who?
The Iraq debacle, the closeness to George Bush (America’s “poodle”) and the way Blair went off, post-politics, in pursuit of wealth and seemednone too fussy about where it came from, have left his credibility compromised. Once, Blair could have been the best advocate for the UK in Europe; when the referendum came, he risked being its worst.
And yet … to hear or see Blair speak in public even now is to sense, almost immediately, the old magic. However sceptical you may be – and I hold him responsible for much of the popular cynicism that prevails towards politics today – you cannot fail to see that he still has what it takes to argue his case and move a crowd. His recent decision to wind up his main company to concentrate on pro bono work (oh, yes, while retaining a few private clients, but let that pass) suggested a change of course.
Blair’s career to date, however, also highlights a shortcoming of UK public life in general. When people reach the pinnacle of politics while still relatively young – Blair, and now David Cameron – they are likely to leave office with many potentially productive years ahead of them.
Blair is still only 63. Is money-making – brazen or discreet, selfish or altruistic – all that remains? Is there not a way in which their experience can be harnessed for the national good?
For a nation with such a rich past, we are not at all good at using historical memory, other than by elevating its bearers to the House of Lords. John Major’s combination of quiet consultancy, cricket and sparing political intervention has been about as good as it gets. Unless, that is, Blair bounces back on to the scene and shows how political comebacks are done.
Tony Blair’s Kazakhstan role has failed to improve human rights, activists say
Tony Blair’s multimillion-pound deal to advise Kazakhstan’s leadership on good governance has produced no change for the better or advance of democratic rights in the authoritarian nation, freedom campaigners say.
At the end of Blair’s two-year contract, which lapsed at the end of October and may yet be renewed, activists said the country had actually experienced heavy reversals in civil liberties and freedom of the press during the time the former prime minister was advising the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“Unfortunately, over the two years that Tony Blair’s been a consultant for Astana, we haven’t seen any changes for the better, or signals of movement towards democratisation,” said embattled opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov, pointing instead to “a deterioration in the human rights and political freedoms situation, a further tightening of the screws”.
Oksana Makushina, a former deputy editor of one closed-down newspaper, said wryly: “If Mr Blair was advising Nazarbayev on something, it definitely wasn’t freedom of speech. Over the last two years the screws have only been tightened on the media.”
Blair’s office maintains his work is a force for good in a country moving in the right direction. Tony Blair Associates said his work “focuses on social and economic reform and is entirely in line with that of the international community”.
A spokesperson said: “Of course the country faces challenges but that is precisely why we should engage and support its efforts to reform. It remains strategically and globally important and it was right that David Cameron chose to visit there earlier this year.”
Blair’s team has also raised human rights, his spokesperson said, adding that speaking publicly last year Blair “was explicit that the status quo was not an option”. Yet his office rejects the notion of a crackdown in Kazakhstan. “We simply do not agree that the situation in this regard has deteriorated.”
Since Tony Blair Associates set up in the glitzy capital, Astana, in October 2011, Kazakhstan has launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties. It began after unrest in the energy-rich west of this sprawling country in December 2011, which left 15 civilians dead when police fired on protesters.
The government blamed the opposition, jailing alleged ringleader Vladimir Kozlov amid an international outcry, closing down his party and shutting dozens of independent media outlets.
During his visit in July, Cameron raised human rights with Nazarbayev, the 73-year-old Leader of the Nation – his official title, a symbol of a thriving personality cult – who has ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades and last won re-election in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote.
For many in Kazakhstan, Blair’s operations are more about spin than substance, as Makushina puts it, “creating a positive image of Kazakhstan in the west that this is an oil-rich country headed by a wise president”.
Blair’s office is defensive about the record of this strategic western ally, describing Kazakhstan as “an important country which has made significant progress by growing its economy around 12 times, giving up nuclear weapons [in 1991] and being religiously tolerant as well as playing a supportive role with regard to troops returning from Afghanistan [for which Kazakhstan provides transit]”.
Rights campaigners take issue with this positive spin. “Blair says human rights issues are critical to his work but he has downplayed new limits on basic freedoms and widespread concerns on the rule of law and torture, in favour of focusing on Astana’s economic and geopolitical achievements,” said Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch.
“From what we know, he has been indifferent to those suffering abuses and has given a veneer of respectability to the authorities during a severe crackdown on human rights.”
Blair likes to talk about changing the world. His office says work in countries such as Kazakhstan helps fund pro bono work in Africa – and it dismisses reports of reaping £16m in fees from Astana as inflated, and says Blair makes no personal profit.