Insights from the UK and beyond
Blast from the past as Blair enters campaign
Tony Blair was back on the campaign trail today, doing what he does best, but whether the voters were happy to see him again is open to question.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown was hoping that Blair could still conjure up some of the old magic that helped Labour to victory in the last three elections. But it quickly became apparent that he conjured up a few demons too.
Arriving in his old constituency of Sedgefield on a misty morning, Blair was driven past a line of protesters brandishing placards that read “Bliar War Criminal”. There were crash barriers and a heavy police presence to keep the dissenters at bay as the former prime minister was ushered into the Trimdon Labour Club, scene of his resignation announcement in 2007.
While not all Britons would go so far as to call Blair a war criminal, he simply cannot get away from the issue of Iraq. Blair flies around the globe these days trying to foster Middle East peace and promote various faith projects — as well as making a fortune in lecturing fees — but in his home country he is always under the shadow of Iraq.
In fact, the last time he was top of the news in Britain was in January, when he passionately defended his decision in 2003 to send British troops into Iraq with the Americans, during six hours of televised testimony at the official inquiry into the unpopular war.
Clearly, Gordon Brown must think it’s worth taking the risk of reviving memories of the war. And once Blair was inside the Trimdon Club, safely surrounded by Labour supporters, it was not hard to see why.
Breaking the ice with a few nostalgic anecdotes from his campaigning days as a political newcomer in the 1983 parliamentary election, Blair then launched into an impassioned speech that shunned the sobering talk of austerity and spending cuts that have dominated this campaign so far. Not for him the dour rhetoric of deficit reduction and fiscal retrenchment. Out of the gloom of recession, he plucked messages of hope.
“When I was prime minister I was known as an optimist. I still am. I’m optimistic about Britain, its future and the opportunities the world holds for us,” he said.
“Strange as it might seem, the financial crisis does not diminish this optimism. The way we are coming through the crisis instead reinforces it.”
Blair then spoke for about 20 minutes, arguing passionately that Labour could be proud of its record and that Brown had taken the right decisions at the right time to steer Britain through economic turmoil. As for the Conservatives, they were not sure where they were heading, Blair said, speaking of a “question mark” over the opposition party that had “gone into bolder print” rather than fading.
It was a vintage performance from a man who has lost none of his talent as an orator. Blair won rave reviews from television news presenters and assorted pundits who peppered their commentary with words like “stardust” and “magic”.
But the pundits were also quick to point out that the entire event was scripted and tightly controlled. Immediately after Blair finished his speech, reporters were asked to leave the room and the television cameras were switched off.
Perhaps organisers were fearful that someone would ask an awkward question — about Iraq maybe, or about reports that have surfaced in the British press about Blair’s personal fortune.
If Blair is Labour’s secret weapon, it is one that they clearly feel needs to be handled with care.