Blair and Brexit: Renewing the Labour Party

Prior to the Brexit referendum, the Remain camp was led by Britain’s foremost politicians. Now, it is a ship without a captain. The Conservative Party has coalesced around Theresa May, a former Remainer who has since become the champion of a hard Brexit. Other Tories, members or supporters of the Conservative Party, who supported the losing side have drowned in an abyss of silence or conveniently jumped ship. Yet what is most striking is the Labour Party’s teetering stance on Brexit. Given that 69 percent of those who voted Labour in 2015’s general election are estimated to have voted Remain in the referendum, one would have expected the Labour Party to become the champion of a soft Brexit, or perhaps even oppose the UK’s departure from the EU altogether. Some Labour leaders have indeed opposed Brexit altogether by arguing that, in a parliamentary democracy, a Member of Parliament has a duty to his or her constituency over the outcome of a referendum. Nevertheless, the party’s official line has been to support Brexit, albeit on somewhat complicated terms.

The Labour Party’s reserved rationale is not hard to follow: How can politicians deliberately oppose the will of the people? Opposing the result of a popular referendum is tantamount to political suicide. For Labour, however, the opposite stance is proving just as fatal. Tony Blair, Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, was the man who reformed and led the Labour Party to unprecedented victories in the 1990s. On the February 17, Blair gave a speech that articulated exactly what Labour’s stance should be: opposite both the government’s management of Brexit and Brexit itself. He proposed holding a second referendum once the terms of Brexit have been negotiated. A new Blairite revolution is exactly what Labour, and those who are still in favor of staying in the European Union, need.

The current state of the Labour party is dismal. A recent study conducted by YouGov and The Times estimated that Labour would obtain 24 percent of the votes if a general election were to be held soon, a 7 percent drop from 2015’s already meagre outcome. Only 16 percent believed that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, was the best choice for Prime Minister. The cause of the lackluster support, the study implies, is to do with Brexit and the Labour Party’s response to the referendum. When participants were asked about the most important issue facing their country, the most common answer was Brexit. Concurrently, only 10 percent of the sample population believed the Labour Party would best handle the Brexit negotiations. Thus, of Britain’s most pressing issues was the belief that the Labour Party’s platform is failing. In addition, British opinion is generally dissatisfied with their current leadership. More people believed Theresa May’s government has been doing badly with regards to Brexit negotiations (43 percent) than well (36 percent).

So, what do these numbers tell us? Brexit-related issues are where the Labour Party could reap votes, as a significant number of people are displeased with the Conservative Party’s work so far. However, most people also seem unhappy with the Labour Party’s leadership. This is a huge missed opportunity, especially given that the last study conducted by YouGov and The Times prior to the Brexit vote showed that Labour had the numbers to win a general election. This shift demonstrates that the way Corbyn and his Labour Party are dealing with Brexit is tarnishing their electoral potential. Either a change of leader or platform is in order. Or, perhaps, the Labour Party needs both.

A new Blairite revolution is exactly what Labour, and those who are still in favor of staying in the EU, need.

Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1977 in a landslide election, running as a Labour Party leader concentrating on centrist themes and abandoning the party’s traditional embrace of nationalisation. Blair espoused a more liberal economic approach, which widened Labour’s electoral base. He then went on to win two more elections in 2001 and 2005 but resigned in 2007 after a power struggle with his Chancellor of the Exchequer and former ally, Gordon Brown. Subsequently, Brown lost the 2010 general election and the party steered back towards a more classical socialist platform. In the last few years, Blair’s leadership has been heavily criticised. In retrospect, many accused him of not preparing the UK for the economic crisis and actively supporting the Iraq war. The latter quagmire was outlined in 2016 by the Chilcot Report, which, owning up, Blair described as, “real and material criticisms of preparation, planning, process and of the relationship with the United States”.

No one can deny that Brexit is a game changer. And perhaps it can be for a former PM with a tarnished legacy. This may have been exactly what Tony Blair had in mind when he walked on stage at Bloomberg’s London headquarters in February of this year. 

At first glance, his speech is nothing more than a presentation of some of Blair’s ideas on Brexit, the most interesting of which is a proposal for a second referendum. While he did not mention a second referendum explicitly in the speech, he made several allusions to the idea, and has been fairly vocal about it on previous occasions. His own analogy is very helpful to understand his argument: Brexit is like a house swap. Say you were looking to move and were considering the purchase of a certain property. One group of friends tells you the place is amazing and that you should definitely buy it, and another tells you it is awful and you should remain where they are. Would it be reasonable for you to make a decision before actually seeing the house? Surely you would want to see the property with your own eyes before committing.

Similarly, the British people, who, by a majority, opted to leave the European Union, knew little more than the opinions of two groups of politicians. They did not know the exact shape the settlement would take or the details of the terms. An important distinction is necessary here: Blair was not arguing that the British people did not know because they were led to believe a false truth, or that they are “too stupid to get it,” as one political commentator complained. Blair was instead stating a fact; one cannot know the terms of an agreement before they have been negotiated.

The UK government and the EU are about to start those negotiations and nobody knows where they may finish. Certainly, Britain will incur some costs, both direct and indirect. For instance, it is now understood that the EU expects the UK to pay a good chunk of previous obligations, which the Financial Times has estimated to be around €20 billion. Some predict the cost may rise to €60 billion, as the UK has liabilities and pledges in many sectors of the EU budget, like pension contributions. Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, has already warned that Britain will face a “very hefty bill.”

Another burning issue includes defining trade terms with EU countries and replacing more than 50 preferential trade agreements, which account for two-thirds of total British trade. The biggest fear is that if the negotiations fail, the UK will need to trade by WTO rules and thus face higher tariffs and quotas on trade than it currently does. Of course, these considerations are taking place amid growing secessionist sentiments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, which could become independent from the UK in order to rejoin the EU.

These concerns were not commonly discussed in the time leading up to the referendum, yet they may become a reality once the negotiations are over in 2019. If this becomes the case, can Britons change their mind? Tony Blair thinks they both can and should. The British people did not provide a mandate for “Brexit at any cost.” Instead, in 2019, when the terms have been defined clearly and Britons are able to ascertain what Brexit actually means, there should be a second referendum asking whether they support Brexit at the given cost.

Most expect Blair to take an informal advocacy role on this issue within the political scene. Yet, one should not exclude the possibility that he is eyeing official power. A large section of his speech was dedicated to pugnacious criticism of Theresa May and her government. He explained how much of what the Prime Minister has said in the last months is contradictory. The Prime Minister wants Britain to be a “great, global trading nation,” yet seeks to achieve that goal by leaving the largest trading union in the world. Moreover, he accused the government of neglecting many of the burning problems the country faces, such as the NHS crisis. Blair’s assessment of the Tory leaders is clear: they are not driving the bus, they are being driven.

Blair had similar criticism for his own Labour Party, announcing that “the debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit.” Blair’s diagnosis is nothing more than what millions of Britons think. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has no chance of winning an election, not even against the Brexit-frenzied Conservatives. Labour should be the force that stands up to Brexiteers, but it can only achieve so much if its leader alienates the electorate and refuses a change of platform. Blair’s veiled attacks may suggest that he is simply hostile to the Prime Minister and Corbyn because they oppose his beliefs, or he is starting to fire shots at his future opponents.

Blair’s ideas have already begun to gain some traction. In the recent debate in the House of Lords on the Brexit Bill, several peers echoed some of Blair’s message. Liberal Democrat Baroness Kramer, Blair’s life peer, was amongst them. Labour’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Darling stated that the referendum did not give the government a “blank cheque.” Another Labour peer quoted Blair, saying that the “debilitation of the Labour Party” contributed to Brexit. This debate demonstrates two primary consequences. First, Blair still has an ideological footing in Parliament. Second, many in the Labour Party think Corbyn cannot lead through these troubled times.
Blair offers the two elements Labour needs most: a strong anti-Brexit stance and a pristine electoral record. The only thing that may hold him back is his controversial reputation. The magnitude and intensity of the negative sentiments Blair invokes may be enough to stall any effort to regain power. A more realistic hope is that someone else in the party, perhaps someone new and undamaged, takes on the challenge. However, it may take someone who has nothing to lose to take the job nobody seems to want. Which bring us right back to Blair.