I had a horrible realisation the other day. I miss Tony Blair. I am actually quite surprised to discover it about myself, because one of my pet hates is usually those actors with so-called ‘charm,’ who believe that those little junior salesboy tricks, like calling you by your name when they talk to you, raising their eyebrows to look serious at the appropriate juncture in conversation, and mimicking your body language, are satisfactory substitutes for genuine empathy, or an emotional range. But when I saw Blair speaking at Leveson – owning the conversation, commanding respect, making everybody in the room smile and trust him even though he is clearly about as trustworthy as a hungry rat – I thought about our current Prime Minister, and, against my will, I longed for a leader with that kind of statesmanship.
David Cameron likes to frame his endless u-turns in terms of the Coalition being “a listening government” but the truth is, he isn’t listening on any of the things people are actually bothered about, like the Health and Social Care Bill. He’s just weak. He doesn’t trust his own policies, and he’s frightened of his own party. There’s a happy balance: Tony Blair could have probably done with a few more u-turns (on one issue in particular). But there’s something awfully dispiriting and worrying about a government that quite clearly doesn’t speak to the experts, or do their research before launching a policy. The u-turns on the charity tax or the caravan tax or selling the forests may have been welcome, but surely there was some reason they believed these were going to be good ideas in the first place? Surely they consulted experts and did some sort of cost-benefit analysis? Surely they know more than we do? Because, frankly, if the government knows less than I do about things, then we are all well and truly headed for the dustbin lining.
Yet Cameron is apparently the heir to Blair. Everyone keeps saying it, don’t they? Well, no, actually; if you remember, David Cameron himself says it. No-one else really does – except people who utterly despise Blair so much that all they really mean by such a comparison is “I despise Cameron as much as I despise Blair.” Does anyone else believe Cameron is heir to Blair? The sentence would never even be uttered if it didn’t rhyme. We might as well say he’s going to drown like Brown. Or he’s a disaster like Thatcher. A villain like Macmillan. I rhyme therefore I am.
There are similarities, of course. They both like the public relations bit of the job. Cameron, ever the PR man, hears a soundbite – for example, ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ – and think it works because it rhymes, like a toothpaste advert or a pop song. He, along with many of Blair’s critics from across the political spectrum, miss the fact that the soundbite works because it rhymes and it also means something which genuinely resonates with people. We want crime to be nailed – that’s why Labour introduced ASBOs (which I hate, but that’s irrelevant), promised to protect police spending, locked (far too many) people up, and tightened up firearm laws; they were, basically, tough on crime. But people also need to know that their government understands that there is a socio-economic context to crime, and that recognising this doesn’t mean you’re making excuses, it’s just that it’s stupid to pretend there is no link between poverty or unemployment, and crime. So they also reformed and improved public services, built schools, built hospitals, introduced a minimum wage and an EMA, set up Sure Start centres and flexible working, created a Future Jobs Fund and tried to make welfare payments match up to the ever-increasing costs of basic living, properly implemented the Macphearson report and brought in new equalities legislation. This is not about praising or criticising all, some, or any of these policies; the point is that ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ wasn’t just a rhyming slogan, it was a rhyming slogan which had a substantive policy basis that people understood and liked, and what’s more, crime fell under Labour as as result of those policies. The difference between ‘The Big Society’, which means nothing and has achieved nothing, and the Blair soundbites is like the difference between a simple rhyming Cheryl Cole lyric and a simple rhyming Beatles lyric.
Much is made of Tony Blair’s constant praise for David Cameron. But it’s hardly in the same league as the enthusiastic praise Blair is capable of showering on the likes of Princess Diana or even George Bush, is it? Blair’s statesmanlike pleasantries about Cameron sound more like a grown up boy generously telling his copycat little brother that his new haircut looks cool than a statesman declaring another statesman to be his heir and equal.
The fact is, Blair doesn’t need to point out that rivals aren’t on his level in terms of political intelligence or power, because they are no threat to him; he is secure enough to just damn them with faint praise.
A key test of leadership is management of your enemies, surely. Blair’s most serious political enemy was Gordon Brown. Blair made him Chancellor, tied Brown’s record and achievements to his own, and kept him dangling in the increasingly undignified position of desperately wanting the premiership, until it was politically appropriate for him to step down and let Brown take responsibility for the unraveling economy – and then he took credit for Brown’s achievements in his autobiography. This is not a moral argument, needless to say. But the comparison between Blair and Cameron doesn’t lie in their moral fibres, it revolves around their talents as leaders and politicians. David Cameron has no Gordon Brown in his cabinet. David Davis, his original leadership rival, sits on the back benches, free to insult Cameron for being posh and out of touch.
Where Blair flatters and then dismisses his enemies, Cameron ignores his, then insults them, making relations worse. Clare Short wanted to resign over Iraq; Blair made her look self-serving, untrustworthy and politically cynical – just think of that for a minute; Blair made her look self-serving, untrustworthy, and politically cynical, in comparison to himself – by managing the resignation so that she was going to resign, then she wasn’t, then she did. When Brian Sedgemore criticised the Iraq war and called Blair a liar, Blair didn’t even bother to answer the criticisms properly. He simply said, “Frankly, I don’t know how Brian Sedgemoore would know, because I don’t recall ever discussing it with him. In fact I don’t recall ever having any conversation about anything with Brian Sedgemore.” What a wonderfully horrid way to dismiss someone when they are making a valid moral argument. Ouch.
David Cameron, far from managing the resignations of Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, Andy Coulson and even Chris Huhne to his own advantage, appears terrified of his own staff and lets them hang on in their jobs until the last possible moment, stinking up his own reputation by association. Imagine if David Cameron really was the heir to Blair. Imagine if he turned around and said, “Well, frankly, I don’t know how Douglas Carswell or Tim Montgomerie or John Redwood or Nadine Dorries or Priti Patel or Simon Heffer would know about my motivation and achievements, because, frankly, I don’t recall ever bothering to talk to them about anything.” It would sound ridiculous. You wouldn’t believe him. He’d sound bitter and silly. He would sound that way because he’s not convincing when he says things. He doesn’t speak with authority. He doesn’t have any particular aura of power that makes you automatically understand that being ignored by him would be some kind of an insult to your credibility. In other words, he’s just not Tony Blair.
There are other parallels people draw between the two men. David Cameron gets credit – well, sort of – for reforming his party and pulling it – sort of – to the centre, and making it – almost – electable. But even that slow, hiccuping ‘achievement’ should rightfully be attributed to Blair. Blair says that one of his greatest achievements is not changing the Labour party, but changing the opposition. And he’s right. So successful was Tony Blair in shifting the entire political centre that by the time David Cameron became party leader in 2005, the Tories knew they could never win a general election by talking about ‘Tory’ issues. They had to promise to protect the NHS and keep Labour’s excellent record on gay rights and carry on funding international development and commit to tackling social justice. And these aren’t issues the Tories can win on. Fighting on Labour territory was always going to be a struggle for the Tories, and in 2010, in spite of everything, struggle they did.
To put David Cameron’s 2010 election ‘win’ into perspective: Tony Blair embarked upon a war in the Middle East based on what can only be described as a complete mistruth, and even before it all went to hell in a hand grenade on the ground, the war in Iraq was supported by about 30% of the population, at best – yet he still won his third election in a row afterwards. Meanwhile, David Cameron, fresh-faced and energetic, with a public sick to death of Labour, dying to give him and his party a chance, could not secure a parliamentary majority against Gordon Brown who is basically the most unpopular person to run the country since King John. (This is hyperbole. I am sure Richard III was less popular than Gordon Brown. As were several of the Hanoverians. But that’s probably about all.) Can anyone really deny that Tony Blair is a monstrous political talent?
Well, yes. Owen Jones is the latest Labour commentator to argue that Labour’s three stomping election wins were more to do with the Tories being “unelectable” than Tony Blair being an “absolute beast at elections” (as a Labour friend of mine once put it). It’s understandable why Labour activists who are loyally, and admirably, committed to Labour values like Owen Jones want this to be true. There are a lot of people in the party who attribute Labour’s success not to Blair’s masterful political skill, but his (to put it mildly) right-of-centre positions on things like wealth hoarding and foreign policy. This is a mistake. People didn’t vote for Blair because they adored deregulation and thought the war on terror was a great idea and felt proud to be publically allied with a figure like George W Bush. Anyone who thinks a Labour leader without Blair’s political game would have got away with these kinds of policies is deluded in the extreme; Blair was so masterful he repeatedly beasted the Tories in election in spite of his right-wingery, not because of it. So yes, it must be infuriating, even heartbreaking, to be a committed Labour member, supporter or donor watching your party torn into bits by people who don’t care anything for its history, traditions, or purpose, but merely use it as a vehicle for their own selfish political ambitions. It must be tempting to panic and insist that Blair himself is an irrelevance; that it was simply the unpopularity of the Tories which led Labour to victory, and that, essentially, any reasonably decent Labour leader would have fared the same, because it was all down to the Tories being “unelectable.”
It’s true that the Tories were flippering about like seals for most of Blair’s premiership, with campaigns to ‘save the pound’ and be on your toes looking out for bogus asylum seekers, hiding under our sofas and inside our ice cream cartons or wherever they were all supposed to be. But an interesting question is, why were the Tories so unelectable? Why were they so obsessed with these teeny-tiny core-vote-only issues? After all, Iain Duncan-Smith might have been a bit embarrassing, but Michael Howard was a seasoned politician, and William Hague is widely considered nowadays to be one of the frontbench’s most heavyweight politicians. And in 2005, the Tories won 31% of the vote. Even as early as 2001, before the noxious love-in with George W Bush began, polling had the Tories dancing around the 29-32% mark, which is roughly where Cameron’s Tories are polling right now. The Tories were polling 32% in January 2001, only four points behind their actual ‘winning’ result (36.1%) against a hated Labour government in 2010.
Couldn’t it be argued that the Tories were essentially unelectable because even though they were taken seriously on ‘Tory’ issues, the political ground itself had been totally re-defined by Tony Blair? Every election was being fought on Labour’s terms? It wasn’t just that Blair was good at answering questions, or pretending to answer questions; he owned the entire parameters of debate. Public service reform, social mobility, racial hatred, aspiration, crime, the causes of crime, education, access to democracy, access to information, playing a central, not a sulky, peripheral role, in Europe: he made everything, every argument, every discussion, every debate, about these things, and these are the issues Labour can win on. The Tories were left with asylum seekers and the pound because what else was there?
This isn’t a Blairite argument. The so-called Blairites are often not actually people who appreciate Blair’s talents at all, but just right-wingers who find it easier to make a career in the Labour party than elsewhere, writing columns slagging off Labour’s leader under a Labour byline, for example. People like Luke Bozier (who I genuinely respect and admire) and Dan Hodges seem to think that if Ed Miliband embraces cuts or demonises welfare claimants or shouts at the unions just a little bit more, he’ll win over all the middle voters. But that is a gross underestimation of what Blair actually did. You don’t inspire faith in your ability to lead by copying the opposition’s answer to each question. Leaders decide what the question is going to be in the first place. They pick the topics; they frame the debate. It’s not really a matter of left or right but of political skill because Tim Montgomerie makes the same criticism of David Cameron; that he won’t ‘out-left’ the left or ‘out-liberal’ the liberals, and if the argument is the NHS or social injustice, the Tories will lose that argument every time. To win, the Tories need the country to care about crime and immigration and the Queen. Similarly, it’s absolutely a valid criticism of these so-called Blairite cheerleaders that Ed Miliband will never ‘out-Tory’ the Tories, and if he allows the argument to be about who can be toughest on unions, for instance, he will lose that argument every time. This is not about praising Tony Blair for being right-wing, but about praising him for his ownership of political discussion. That is something Ed Miliband would be a fool not to drink in and learn from.
Just look at Blair’s performance at Leveson. He doesn’t bother with any of these apologetic “I can’t quite recall” explanations about why he’s not answering the question properly. He just makes his answers into mini speeches about how many schools and hospitals Labour built, until you can’t remember whether or not he actually did answer the question. You can’t even remember what the question was. And – this is another important point – he makes everyone smile while doing it.
That isn’t something the Labour party should pretend they don’t notice or pretend isn’t a big deal. Most politicians don’t make people smile. Most politicians don’t even make each other smile. Some of them probably don’t even make their own kids smile when they come in the front door. No matter how morally repugnant, how borderline sociopathic, how dishonest you may find Tony Blair on a personal level, no matter how much you want to cringe at his shameless acting, pretending that the ability to make people smile, in the middle of a situation like the Leveson inquiry, has nothing to do with how he hammered out three rock solid election victories is to fail to understand the very same electorate you are trying to win over right now.
Every time Blair compliments Cameron, or Cameron tells us he’s the heir to Blair, we – the largely undecided, unaffiliated electorate – can’t help but compare the two men. And Tony Blair, by nature of his strengths, even the strengths you hate him for, highlights the absolute worst weaknesses in Cameron’s leadership talents without even trying.
And what’s more, it is quite difficult to see how anyone can believe that the Tory cuts being made now will decimate society and explode inequality, without believing that the Blair-Brown government deserves a reasonable amount of praise, respect and gratitude for accomplishing these things in the first place. Ultimately, whatever you think of him, Blair has an overall objective. The word messianic is used all too often in conjunction with him; what is the opposite of messianic? Opportunistic? Shallow? Aimless? Devoid of aspiration? Whatever the word is, that’s Cameron.
By adopting the gloss without the substance, the words without the policies, the listening face without actually being in touch; by telling us he’s listening instead of just making us believe it, David Cameron has missed the whole essence of Blairism. It’s typical of Cameron and his government, of course, to treat the public with such patronising contempt. Of course he thinks we voted for Tony Blair because we liked his haircut. He thought we’d support his immigration policy because he spoke to a black man in Plymouth about it. He thinks we won’t see him as out of touch because he ate a Cornish pasty and likes Pink Floyd. The man clearly thinks we’re all morons. So it doesn’t surprise me that David Cameron doesn’t get why Blair was popular – because he was, there’s no way around it, he was respected and listened to and people voted for him and over and over and over. But it does surprise me that Owen Jones doesn’t understand it.
And, as someone who would like to vote Labour but usually doesn’t, it’s a worry. It’s probably painful and anger-making for them, but the left of the Labour party need to be able to separate Blair’s right-wingery from his political talent. Pretending and denying that he wasn’t a knockout electoral force makes the whole anti-Blairite wing of the Labour party look out of touch and delusional. And that is dangerous, for the Labour party and consequently for the rest of the country, because if the left of the Labour party fail to understand the electorate, and make themselves look out of touch, it means that the future of the country’s only serious, electable left-of-centre political party will be left in the hands of people who want it to be a right-wing party.
Admitting that Blair had political skill doesn’t mean you have to adopt Blair-style policies. It’s nothing to do with left or right-wing; most of the electorate don’t think of themselves in those terms. They don’t care if public spending is 30% or 60% of GDP as long as the economy is moving. They don’t care if hospitals are funded mainly by the state or by PPI as long as they are clean and safe and available at the point of need. And they don’t care if their leader is blue Labour or red Tory or Orange or Yellow. They want a leader, above all else, who seems as if they know what the bloody hell they are doing. Whether you like every bit of what they are doing? That comes next. But David Cameron’s inability to recognise the public’s attraction to competence and leadership, his belief that he can substitute those with gloss and spin, that’s his glaringly obvious Achilles’ heel. It would be a terribly ironic missed opportunity if the Labour party themselves made the same mistake whilst trying to beat him.