This could well be a collector’s edition – the first time Tribune has agreed with anything Boris Johnson has ever uttered: “I urge the British people to rise up and turn off the TV next time Blair comes on with his condescending campaign.” That was after Tony Blair said it is his “mission” to persuade Britons to “rise up” and change their minds on Brexit.
Blair, prime minister a decade ago, used his speech to the pro-European campaign group Open Britain to argue that leaving the EU would be “painful” for Britain and Europe and the benefits would be “largely illusory”. He said that while he accepted that people voted to leave by 52% to 48%, he would recommend looking again at Brexit when “we have a clear sense of where
Blair, regardless of his qualifications, seems to be under the illusion that the referendum campaign is still being fought. Just as Donald Trump is acting as if the US elections are still underway. One is suffering from the delusions of a loser, the other from the delusions of a
victor. Both are risible.
Some Left-wing conspiracy theorists, including some around Jeremy Corbyn, are already punting the idea that the intervention is part of a Blairite plot to foment disarray ahead of more Labour losses, particularly in upcoming council elections. That is “poppycock”. Blair’s belated contribution to the debate is much more to do with delusions of an ex-premier still feted across much of the world – hence his millions – who can’t understand his toxicity at home after the Iraq War.
That said, however, Blair’s speech did raise a tactical question for Remainer MPs wondering what to do next: fight for Brexit on their terms or fight Brexit itself. In the absence of an effective opposition, the argument goes, pro-Europeans need to build a “movement” reaching across party lines. And when he said that “the debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit,” there are many, including current frontbenchers, who privately agree.
Alan Johnson, who led Labour’s campaign to keep Britain in the EU, urged people to listen to the message, not the messenger. Stressing he would not rule out a second referendum, Johnson said people are concerned that Britain could end up as a “low tax, anything goes, race-to-the-bottom kind of country” post Brexit. Such arguments are better put by the likes of him than Blair.
But there is still the matter of simple democracy. The people voted by a narrow but clear majority after a campaign marked by outrageous lies, distortions and exaggerations on both sides. Earlier this month, MPs overwhelmingly agreed, by 494 votes to 122, to let the government begin the UK’s departure from the EU by voting for the Brexit bill. Lib Dem attempts to amend the bill to include a provision for another referendum were defeated by 340 votes to 33.
In the Lords this week, Lady Evans said: “This bill is not about revisiting the debate. This bill is not the place to try and shape the terms of our exit, restrict the government’s hand before in enters into complex negotiations or attempt to re-run the referendum.”
The message should be clear, even to ex-premiers. Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that Blair’s call for a cross-party movement to try to force a change of course on Brexit was “unhelpful” was a massive understatement.
But Corbyn went on: “The referendum gave a result, gave a very clear decision on this, and we have to respect that decision, that’s why we didn’t block Article 50. But we are going to be part of all this campaigning, all these negotiations about the kind of relationship we have in Europe in the future. The referendum happened, let’s respect the result. Democracy happened, respect the result.” Quite right.