Tony Blair has finally achieved his dream as a student rocker: to be Mick Jagger. Not through siring eight children with five different women, or by topping the UK and US charts a dozen times. No, the former lead singer of Ugly Rumours is mirroring his hero by becoming the for a faintly-embarrassing nostalgia trip. Just as Jagger travels the world churning out his old hits to endless middle-class Dads desperately trying to suck in their beer bellies and summon back their teenage years, so has Blair found a similar audience in his ongoing efforts to pose as the sensei of Britain’s centrists.
This, of course, refers to the former Prime Minister’s upcoming ‘Future of Britain’ conference. Billed as a forum for the discussion of centrist ideas, the gathering will feature a speech from Blair – and, if the organisers can manage it, Emmanuel Macron. Manu is not the only prince across the water invited, as David Miliband is also being wooed to talk about Britain’s place in the world. Other than that, it is a veritable cornucopia of social and economic liberalism: Rory Stewart, Phil Collins (no, not that one), Trevor Philips, Luciana Berger, Ruth Davidson, Jon Sopel – and even our columnist David Gauke.
If that line up isn’t quite enough to get your pulse racing, then get a load of the topics up for discussion. This conference is designed as a forum where attendees can work out “progressive solutions to the problems facing the country” and fill the “gaping hole in the governing of Britain where new ideas should be”. Transforming those slogans into policy means focusing on three particular areas: climate change, growth, and technology. All very worthy. Yet in true New Labour fashion, this is already reported infighting amongst the organisers, between those who seem this just as a conference – and those who see it as a springboard for a new centre party.
Of course, talk of a new home for Britain’s social and economic liberals is hardly new. We’ve saw a stab at it with The Independent Group The Independent Group for Change Monkey Tennis Change UK in 2019. From February to December that year, the motely collection of former Labour and Conservative MPs that encompassed that little exercise manged to get through half a dozen leaders and names, flop at both the European election and the general election, and waste a perfectly good Nando’s. For those MPs that didn’t defect to the Liberal Democrats – like Berger – their only comfort is to be an answer to a pub quiz question.
The case for a new party in 2019 was obvious. Labour was tarnished by Corbyn’s leadership, the antisemitism of some members, and the muddle over Brexit. May’s Conservatives were little better in the heady days of Meaningful Votes I, II, and III – a trilogy so awful they make the Star Wars prequels look respectable. So when Berger, Chuka Umunna, and seven other Labour MPs announced their new party, it looked like they had a chance at political relevance. Yet they were soon joined by Tory Remainers Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, and Sarah Wollaston. What was supposed to be a Labour party without the antisemitism became a second referendum party – and suffered accordingly.
Hence why attendees at this conference are so keen to stress that this is not the ground zero of Independent Group 2. That is especially as we now have a Labour party shorn of the taint of antisemitism, perhaps the only major success of Starmer’s leadership. Without that political undertone, it becomes much easier to explain this conference as a genuine attempt to analyse big topics that the 24/7 media cycle neglects. Politics has been driven by the unexpected in recent years, with Brexit, Covid, and the war in Ukraine. So there is an obvious logic in trying to get ahead of the curve when it comes to contemplating the challenges of the future.
It is also the case that politics has not necessarily been big on big ideas in recent years. With Dominic Cummings long-gone from Downing Street, the role of this government’s ideas person is painfully absent. And Rachel Reeves was wrong to say to the Chancellor last week that Labour is making the intellectual waves in politics at the moment. The Chancellor may have pilfered her windfall tax, but it is telling that that was the only distinctive policy the Opposition have produced in the last two years. Labour are just as shorn of vision as the Government is. They are crying out for the sort of policy ideas this ‘Future of Britain’ event purportedly aims to produce.
And yet, despite its pretensions, I feel that the future is the last thing that this conference really wants to think about. Yes, there might be some worthy discussions about important topics, accompanied by handwringing over the need to improve our productivity, cut CO2, or invest in nuclear fusion. But this is just as much as a self-satisfied wallowing in nostalgia as any Rolling Stones concert. Just swap ancient rockers for those who have found themselves on the wrong sides of both recent Labour or Tory leadership elections – sorry, Stewart, Gauke, and Davidson – and the 2016 referendum.
Change UK’s names were always amusing, since the party didn’t want Britain to change, but to go back to 2002. This conference is no different – and that is the case for nobody more than its leader, organiser, and star speaker. Blair has long hoped to carve out a new role for himself in British politics. With a whole generation of voters now having grown up post-Iraq, Blair can twin his new mane with the role of the Aslan of centrism. He has opined on Brexit, Covid, and the state of Labour, and reportedly speaks to Starmer on a weekly basis. 25 years on from his first landslide, the new Sir Tony must hope that a new dawn is breaking once again.
If so, he is as dangerously deluded and high on his own messianic nonsense as he was when he trooped into the Middle East after George W. Bush. My generation may have still been in nappies at the time Iraq, but we know exactly who Blair is. The hapless tepidity of the Third Way remains the preserve of centrist Dads and BBC editorial conferences. My leftie friends are all Corbynistas, of varying intensity. Just as Jagger gurning about painting it black leaves me rushing for some earplugs, Labour leaders of tomorrow think they have nothing to learn from a man they have long written off as a Tory.
But if Blair can’t get no satisfaction from sitting on the sidelines, he should learn from two of his Conservative successors. David Cameron may have got into a tangle over Greensill last year, but his efforts at helping Ukrainian refugees and supporting various charities show how a former Prime Minister can make themselves genuinely useful. And rather than fleeing the Commons to go and hawk her experience to various third world dictators, Theresa May had the courage to continue as an MP and use her time in Number 10 to speak in debates from a position of strength. If Blair really cared about British politics more than his own ego, that is what he would have done.
Now there’s a thought. One suspects little will come from this Blairite love-in. There will be no new party of Independent Social Democrats for Changing, Remaining, and Things Getting Better. But it is a century in October since the Conservative Party met to defenestrate Lloyd George and replace him as Prime Minister with their former leader Andrew Bonar Law. So who knows. Maybe the former Prime Minister to pay attention to in the coming months isn’t Tony Blair, but Theresa May.