Nineteen months have passed since Britain voted to leave the EU. Tony Blair left Downing Street for the last time more than ten years ago. Yet the former Prime Minister remains as involved as ever in European politics. In addition to wanting the electorate to “think again” once the final Brexit deal becomes clear, Mr Blair has taken aim at Labour, accusing them of facilitating a “Tory right-wing” Brexit, making the task of a future Labour government to deliver on their promises “extremely difficult”. Blair remains unpopular as ever, and his comments have been branded simply “unhelpful”. But what if he’s right?
Admittedly, Blair’s desire for the electorate to “change their mind” is unrealistic. Both the Conservatives and Labour plan to go through with Brexit. The Conservatives, having gained a sizeable chunk of votes from UKIP, are complacent with leaving the EU. Labour, led by a closet Eurosceptic, are of a similar opinion.
One needn’t look too far to see why the government won’t consider a second referendum. Given the broad reaction to Spanish authorities’ actions during Catalonia’s illegal independence vote as “abhorrent”, the prospect of the UK government ignoring the outcome of a lawful and legitimate referendum, a prospect already labelled an “undemocratic” plot, is unnerving.
One party brave enough to support another referendum is the Liberal Democrats. One would imagine they might have learnt from their last experience in government not to make promises they aren’t “absolutely sure” they can “deliver”, to quote Nick Clegg.
All hope is not lost for Blair, though. Abundant evidence supports claims that, distracted and with “little money”, Labour will find implementation of their election proposals impracticable.
The data plays right into Blair’s hands. European migrant migration, which could be considered vital for the operation of the NHS, has dropped dramatically since the referendum, hindering the ability of any government to improve NHS services. The Bank of England predict business investment will be 25% lower in 2019 than pre-referendum forecasts. The Financial Times estimate falling productivity rates are causing a weekly net loss of £350 million to the UK economy. Where have I heard that statistic before?
Blair has even suggested a number of potential policies which, he says, would be a far more suitable remedy to Britain’s ailments than leaving the EU. A “land value tax”, for example, would aim to alleviate the housing crisis.
Turning on the shadow business secretary, who speaks of “keeping the benefits of customs union agreements” but being free to negotiate “trade deals” independently, Blair brands Labour’s strategy on Brexit “confusing”. Indeed, Barnier has discouraged “cherry-picking” by UK negotiators, and Blair contends the attempt to replicate current benefits of EU institutions makes a “mockery” of the case to leave. It is very much a case of hard Brexit, or no Brexit. The consequences of the former are described above.
Nevertheless, convincing as he may be, the public do not trust Blair. Farage summarises the issue of his European record, tweeting, “Wrong on ERM. Wrong on Euro. Wrong on Brexit!”. Largely a result of his foreign policy legacy, the public focus too often turns to Blair’s record as opposed to what he is actually saying.
This loathing of Blair is contrasted with a huge appetite for Brexit. A recent Yougov poll notes the current pro-Brexit electorate being 68%. MPs voted to trigger Article 50 with an enormous majority of 372. Such statistics favour Blair’s argument of a cross-party support of Conservative right-wing preferences on Brexit, but they won’t bring a second referendum.
For Blair’s comments to have any salience, the public need to abandon their grudge against him, or Remainers need to find a new cheerleader. Both seem unlikely.