Tony Blair has returned to the fray of politics by calling on supporters of British membership of the European Union to ‘rise up’ and refuse to accept that Brexit is inevitable.
He wants there to be an opportunity for the referendum result to be overturned if there is evidence the public has changed its mind on the wisdom of leaving. His call has been condemned as ‘arrogant and utterly undemocratic’. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, said the British public should, instead, rise up and turn the telly off when Mr Blair appears on it. Should Britain have the chance to change its mind once the terms of exit are known, or should the referendum result be regarded as immutable?
Throughout his ten-year premiership Tony Blair was always a staunch supporter of Britain’s membership of the EU. So convinced was he of Britain’s place in Europe that he even once told his party conference that joining the euro was Britain’s ‘destiny’. Since leaving office he has never wavered in his commitment to the EU.
So the referendum result, redefining Britain’s destiny as divorce from the EU, came as a terrible blow to him. Among other things it marked another nail in the coffin of New Labour, the reformed Labour Party he had done so much to bring about. He attacked his successor as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for having been ‘lukewarm’ in campaigning for the Remain side. And in his speech on Friday at the Bloomberg headquarters in London, where David Cameron first announced three years ago his decision to hold a referendum, Mr Blair said: ‘The debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit. I hate to say that, but it is true.’
The main purpose of his speech, however, was to urge those who shared his views about Britain staying in the EU not to respond to the referendum result and the subsequent overwhelming vote of MPs to empower the government to proceed with Brexit by engaging in ‘retreat, indifference or despair’ but instead to ‘rise up in defence of what we believe.’ It was now, he said, his ‘mission’ to create a cross-party campaign to do so.
His argument was that in the referendum last June voters had been asked to give their verdict as to whether Britain leave or remain in the EU ‘without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit.’ He said: ‘Our challenge is to expose relentlessly the actual cost [of Brexit] and to build support for finding a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge.’
He accused the government of pursuing Brexit ‘at any cost’ and some of its members of always having wanted a ‘hard’ Brexit. Mr Blair conspicuously did not commit himself to a second referendum. Instead he asserted the ‘right of voters to change their mind’ and called for the opportunity for the country to ‘look again’ at its decision ‘when we have a clear sense of where we’re going.’
He was immediately attacked by supporters of Brexit. Iain Duncan Smith, once the Tory opposition leader who faced Mr Blair at the despatch box, accused him of arrogance and said his proposal was ‘utterly undemocratic’. It showed how the political elite was completely out of touch with ordinary voters. Boris Johnson accused Blair of ‘insulting the intelligence of the British people’ with his ‘condescending campaign’. He claimed that nothing had changed since last June.
But supporters of Britain’s EU membership rallied to Mr Blair. Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister under David Cameron, said he ‘agreed with every word’. Other supporters argue that Blair is right to claim that voters did not know what they were voting for last June. That’s because (they say) even those who were running the Leave campaign did not know.
Some argued that Brexit would mean Britain leaving the single market; others argued that it might not. Similarly with the customs union. Some Leavers argued in favour of Britain becoming a champion of global free trade after Brexit, with the implication that this might mean that high levels of net immigration would continue. Some argued for a protectionist post-Brexit Britain in which immigration would be sharply reduced. It took the new prime minister, Theresa May, over six months to advance beyond her empty mantra ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and that, they say, proves that voters could not have known what they were voting for.
Only now is the true content of that phrase beginning to emerge. Mrs May has become explicit that Brexit means leaving the single market and removing Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. But that is only the start. The government expresses optimism that it can negotiate good terms of exit but no one yet knows what those terms will be or even whether a deal can be struck at all. Many doubt that it can. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has said that no deal is better than a bad deal. It is the very real possibility of no deal being struck that has raised alarm that Britain may be heading for the ‘cliff’s edge’.
That is the case behind Mr Blair’s call for Britain to have the chance to think again. But his refusal to advocate a second referendum explicitly makes his critics even crosser. They suspect he wants Parliament (where there has long been a pro-EU majority) to be given the sole right to put a stop to Brexit, without recourse to another referendum.
Some continuing supporters of British membership, notably the Liberal Democrats, are committed to a second referendum once exit terms are known. But critics of their position say this would simply encourage other EU countries to drive a very hard bargain, in order to ensure that British voters would take fright and opt to remain in the EU after all. So the government will have none of it: the people have made their decision and it is simply left to the government to enforce it, come what may.
Among those who ardently wish for Britain to stay in the EU there will be those who agree with every aspect of his argument but will regret that it is Mr Blair who is putting it. He himself, in the past, has acknowledged that there are negatives as well as positives in his getting involved - a reference to the damage done to his reputation by the Iraq war. This point has been seized on by those passionate to get Britain out of the EU who believe the referendum settled the issue once and for all.
Owen Paterson, the former Tory cabinet minister, said: ‘If Brexit is not delivered, it will represent the most shattering damage to trust in the whole of the political establishment. But Mr Blair has already done his bit to undermine that trust considerably.’
Mr Blair, however, clearly feels that the dangers facing Britain are so great that this is a risk worth taking. He said that although he could not promise success, ‘we will suffer a rancorous verdict from future generations if we do not try [to] build support for finding a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge.’
What’s your view? Is Tony Blair right to say that Britain needs to have the opportunity to change its mind over leaving the EU once it knows the terms of Brexit? If so, should there be another referendum or should Parliament alone be allowed to overturn last June’s decision? Do you think British voters did or did not have enough information to make a responsible decision last June? What do you make of the argument that any challenge to last June’s decision would risk destroying trust in the political establishment? And do you think Tony Blair is an asset or a liability to the pro-EU side?
Let us know what you think.