The return of Tony Blair (2023)



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The former British prime minister, who left Downing Street largely unpopular, is back in favor with his Labor party, which hopes his political skills will be an asset as the election approaches.

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The return of Tony Blair (1)

AfterStjepan Castle

Reporting from London

A decade and a half after Tony Blair left Downing Street, one issue 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 Mr. Blair was visited by Queen Elizabeth II last year. gave the title of knight, more than a million peoplesigned the petitionseeking deprivation of honor. Even within his own Labor Party, he remained a complex figure, loathed by those on the far left, while grudgingly admired by some who noted that he was the only party leader to win three consecutive British elections.

Today, as the Labor opposition feels its growing power under its leader,Keir Starmer, Mr. Blair suddenly, and rather incredibly, returned to favor. For Mr Starmer, accepting Mr Blair sends a political message, underscoring Labour's shift towards the centre. But the former prime minister also has the charisma and communication skills that Mr Starmer lacks, advantages that could come in handy as the general election approaches.

Last month, the two appeared on stage together, exchanging compliments at a glittering conference organized by Tony Blair's Institute for Global Change — an organization that works for governments around the world, including autocracies, and hammers out policies that could help Labor if it wins the next elections.

Mr Blair, now 70, is graying, thinner and his face is a little thinner than when he left Downing Street in 2007. But he still held the stage effortlessly as he told the audience that Britain would be in safe hands if Mr .Starmer won the next election.

“It was like declaring an apostolic succession,” said John McTernan, a political strategist and former aide to Mr. Blair, who added that “the chemistry between the two made you think they were talking a lot and understanding each other. ”


Jill Rutter, a former civil servant and senior fellow at the Institute for Government, a London-based think tank, said Mr Blair "clearly wanted to re-engage as a major player in British politics" but Mr Starmer "is the first leader to he seems ready to let him do it."

The right-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper was more open. "Tony Blair is set to rule Britain again - and Starmer might just let him," readthe title of the opinion piece.

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

But byend of his mandate, and as Iraq descended into chaos, the public was angry with Mr. Blair, who, along with George W. Bush, the president of the United States,justified the invasionwith never substantiated claims that the country had weapons of mass destruction. The invasion led to years of sectarian violence in Iraq and an upsurgeIslamist militant groups that became the forerunner of the Islamic State.

Mr. Blair's reputation after Downing Street was further damagedlucrative consulting business for governments with dubious human rights records, seemingly confirming his penchant for wealth. Such questions were also asked in connection with his institute. The Sunday Times of London recentlyreportedthat the institute continued to advise the government of Saudi Arabia after the murder of the writer Jamal Khashoggi andstill received money from the kingdom.


In a statement, the institute said: “Mr. Blair took the view then, and holds it firmly now - as he has said publicly - that while the killing of Mr Khashoggi was a horrific crime that should never have happened, the program of social and economic change underway in Saudi Arabia is huge and positive. significance for the region and the world."

"The relationship with Saudi Arabia is of key strategic importance for the West," it added, and "therefore, staying engaged there is justified."

None of this criticism has stopped a rehabilitation that would have been unthinkable when Labor was led by Mr Starmer's predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, a left-winger and fierce political opponent of Mr Blair. At the time, Mr Starmer worked alongside Mr Corbyn, and when Mr Starmer became party leader in 2020, he initially kept Mr Blair at bay.

Now their relationship is so warm that when the former prime minister recently celebrated his birthday in a London restaurant, Mr Starmer dropped by to wish him well.

"Tony just carried on after a period where it was almost as if the Labor Party didn't want him around," said Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's former spokesman. “I think people end up thinking, ‘Say what you like about the guy, but he's good at what he does; he is still the most credible interpreter of difficult situations.''

Some see Mr. Blair's return as a contemporary political parable.

"A lot of politics has now taken over the celebrity narrative," said Mr McTernan, a political strategist, adding: "Tony, as a political celebrity, has fallen in the public eye, but he's earned his way back up."

"It's not about forgiveness about Iraq, but there is a tricky story around Tony," Mr McTernan said, and the British people were starting to "be ready to listen again".


The political rehabilitation of Mr. Blair was helped by comparisons with the ruling Conservative Party, which presided over the political turmoil. Years of deadlock over Brexit ended whenBoris Johnsonconvincingly won the 2019 election — only to be kicked out of Downing Street last year under a cloud of scandal. He was replaced by Liz Truss, the British Prime Ministerthe shortest mandate in history, before Rishi Sunak restored some stability.

"We've had such a run of unsuccessful prime ministers that when you look at someone who commanded the stage, you look back and say, 'He was a pretty big dominant prime minister,'" Ms Rutter said.

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

With around 800 staff members scattered around the world in Abu Dhabi, Accra, San Francisco, Singapore and New York, and a sleek, modern office in London's West End, the institute even had influence over Ms Rutter's Conservative government. he said, pointing to Mr Blair's proposal during the coronavirus pandemic to structure his vaccine program to give as many people as possible their first shot.

Mr. Campbell, his former spokesman, added that the institute's work showed Mr. Blair in a new light, making money not just for himself but to "build an organization whose fruits people are now seeing."

Perhaps the biggest question is: What now?


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

If Labor wins power, Mr. Greater opportunities for influence would open up for Blair.

Ms Rutter suggests he built his institute partly because, when he was in Downing Street - which has a relatively small staff compared to government departments - he believed there were too few experts available.

"The question is whether Blair is content with the institute churning out reports that the Labor government may or may not want to look at, or whether he will seek to be more powerful behind the throne," she said.

Mr Blair, she added, "has tried to muster an enormous amount of political ability - the only problem for him now is that he is not prime minister."

Stjepan Castleis a correspondent from London, writes a lot about Britain, including the country's politics and relations with Europe. More about Stephen Castle

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