Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tony Blair: The once and and future king?

Anyone who has read this column more than once over the past 15 years or so will probably know by now that I have never exactly been the greatest fan of Tony Blair.

It was not just all the spin and smarm, it was the fact that having waited so long for a left-of-centre government, we ended up with one that behaved in much the same way as the Tory administrations that preceded it.

From the perspective of a political journalist on a North-East newspaper, what made it worse was the evident lack of regard in which the former Prime Minister appeared to hold his ‘home’ region.

Having got his big break unexpectedly at Sedgefield in 1983, he repaid the region’s loyalty by ignoring its needs at every turn and allowing its prosperity divide with the South to widen markedly during his time in office.

So why, then, am I secretly clucking with pleasure at the flurry of recent stories suggesting the great man may soon make a return to the political frontline?  Well, partly, I guess, because it would make politics more interesting.

But mainly it’s down to a feeling that, in Britain, we discard our political leaders far too early, that we should be making greater use of their accumulated wisdom in the interests of better and more enlightened government.

In this context, Mr Blair’s own estimation of why he would like the chance to be Prime Minister again makes interesting reading.

“I have learned an immense amount in the past five years. One of my regrets is that what I have learned in the last five years would have been so useful to me, because when you see how the world is developing you get a far clearer picture of some of the issues our country is grappling with,” he said recently.

Now it would be easy to dismiss this as another example of Mr Blair’s colossal self-regard, were it not for the fact that what he says actually rings true.

In the not-so-distant past, after all, people who had been Prime Minister once quite often went on to become Prime Minister again – and usually ended up making a better fist of it than they had the first time round.

If I'm honest, I think I probably have something of a romantic attachment to the politics of the 19th century, when political careers lasted 60 years and the likes of Palmerston and Gladstone could still become Prime Minister in their 80s.

It’s also probably down in part to an instinctive dislike of ageism, a dislike that is becoming stronger as I myself edge nearer and nearer towards the half-century mark.

Asked recently by London’s Evening Standard whether he would welcome a return as Prime Minister, Mr Blair was quoted as saying: "Yes, sure, but it's not likely to happen is it."

One of the biggest reasons it is so unlikely is that, as Mr Blair himself acknowledged on the day he left office, he is not, and never has been, a “House of Commons man.”

He made clear how he felt about the place by resigning as an MP on the very day he resigned as Prime Minister, and it is inconceivable to see him hanging around on the backbenches waiting for his chance to ‘do a de Gaulle.’

Could he, instead, become a House of Lords or a Senate man, one of the elected peers Nick Clegg hopes to see if he gets his way and forces the Tory backbenches to swallow Lords reform?  This, I think, is rather more likely.

But if Tony Blair really does want to be Prime Minister again – and if you are politician, I don’t think you ever quite lose that desire – he would have to do it by a very different route next time round.

He won’t come back as leader of the Labour Party.  They wouldn’t have him even if they lost the next election and the one after that too.

He would probably have to start his own party, join the Tories, or, more plausibly, put himself at the head of some sort of grand Coalition in a moment of national crisis.

And the other thing he would have to do differently, of course, would be to find somewhere to represent that was a long way away from the North-East.