When Ed Miliband made the announcement that Tony Blair was to return to Labour for the first time in five years as an adviser on the Olympic legacy, there were questions that were raised. But of those questions, the main one was this: is this a comeback for Blair into the realm of British politics?
The move was controversial, considering the position of Miliband compared to the man who was unquestionably the party’s most successful Prime Minister in the electorate. “It was interesting because it suggested that Tony Blair thought that there was a serious danger that Ed Miliband might win the next election,” said John Rentoul, a columnist with The Independent on Sunday and the author of a biography on Blair, in an interview with Kettle. “[Blair] could hardly be brought in to advise on foreign policy, public service reform, economic policy or anything important because his positions are fundamentally different from Miliband's.”
Blair stepped down in 2007, and when he was asked by the London Evening Standard if he wanted to return, he hinted at the opportunity. “Yes, sure, but it's not likely to happen, is it?” Blair told the Standard according to The Guardian, adding that he could still play a significant role in public life. “What I can do is contribute to the debate, whether it is Europe or the Arab spring or areas to do with economy and public service reform here,” Blair said.
Blair’s aides also downplayed any speculation of a return, saying this appointment shouldn’t be over analysed. “It's something Tony knows a lot about,” the adviser told The Guardian. “He's got the sports foundation and he was instrumental in bringing the Games to London.”
Rentoul adds that the appearance was low key, but the event is significant, especially considering the additional appearance of former aide Anji Hunter. “It was part of a wider strategy of re-engagement by the Blairites, including Andrew Adonis advising on industrial policy. I think TB and some of his supporters want to bind Ed M in to a more Blairite orientation,” Rentoul said. “They are now in a position of (not much) power, in that it would now cause Ed M problems if they withdrew co-operation, saying that he was too much of an immature lefty.”
Dr. Matthew Ashton, a lecturer in politics at Nottingham Trent University, says however there are some who will be opposed to the move. “On the one hand Blair is obviously closely associated with Labour's glory years from 1997-2008ish, but many in the party will never forgive him for sucking up to Murdoch, invading Iraq/Afghanistan, PFI, and generally behaving like a closet Conservative,” Ashton said in an interview with Kettle. “A lot of them see 1997-2005 as a wasted opportunity where the party had a huge parliamentary majority, yet failed to use it to effect radical change.”
Ashton added that the appointment is a testing of the water, and if it works, a more central role in the 2015 election by the party may be in store for Blair. “He’s also still the best natural political communicator of his generation. Ed Miliband is obviously hoping that some of his professionalism and public speaking skills might rub off on him,” Ashton said.
However, when it comes to a possible return to Number 10, that is unlikely, despite Blair’s statements. “He had a longer stint than was strictly possible, borrowing millions of pounds from secret donors and borrowing Gordon Brown's credibility to get him over the finishing line in 2005,” Rentoul said. “A very large minority in the Labour Party, a tiny minority among the voters and a large majority among journalists hate him with an unreasonable passion for being a winner.”
Ashton adds that for Blair’s legacy, a return may taint it. “While power is always addictive, he's making far too much money on the lecture circuit and advising big companies now (something that could also hurt him politically if he tried to make a comeback),” Ashton said. “Blair got out at just the right time (or was forced out) in 2007, so that most of the blame for the credit crunch fell on Brown. As a result his legacy, with the exception of the War on Terror, is relatively secure. By trying to make a comeback to front-line British politics he could just end up tainting that legacy and looking undignified.”
There is a consensus within the Labour party, including its supporters, to unseat David Cameron after the 2015 election as the tensions within the coalition rise. Labour as a party may politically benefit from the advice Blair gives, but its chances of having Blair as leader are unlikely, considering the political harm it may likely incur not just for the party, but himself.
Rentoul however said it best, that despite the hatred of Blair by the minority in voters and parties, and the majority of journalists, there was an idea behind why Blair left in the first place: “He quit the House of Commons for a reason, which is that trying to make a comeback is a stupid idea.”