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How Tony Blair gets away with it The former PM continues to poison our politics

He's like a bad smell (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

He's like a bad smell (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)


August 25, 2021   5 mins

Earlier this year, Tony Blair appeared in public with curiously long hair. Opinion was divided: some people compared him to a tramp, others to a magician. I was reminded of Saruman, the white wizard gone bad in The Lord of the Rings. At the end of Tolkien’s tale, Saruman is found hiding out in the Shire. A shadow of his former self, his powers are spent. But he retains his persuasive voice — and his capacity for making trouble. 

And so it is with Mister Tony. The man keeps turning up
 I would say like a bad penny, only he’s worth rather more than that. Estimates vary, but we’re talking tens of millions of pounds. 

In 2014, he scoffed at the idea that he was worth £100 million. “I’m not worth that. A half of that. A third of that. A quarter of that. A fifth of that. I could go on.” Of course, that was seven years ago — and he has gone on. Getting richer, that is.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to map out the full extent of Mr Blair’s ventures. Some are commercial, like Tony Blair Associates, others are philanthropic, like the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, but they all do nicely for themselves. Blair insists that it’s about “making a difference”, not “making money” — but in an extraordinary run of bad luck the latter keeps on happening. How frustrating for him!

Whatever the true level of his personal wealth, it safe to assume there’s enough squirrelled away for a comfortable retirement. And yet there’s no sign of him withdrawing from public life. Quite the opposite. Whether it’s Brexit, Covid or Afghanistan, up he pops.

Ironically, it was the 2016 conclusion to the Iraq Inquiry that set him free. The findings were a devastating indictment of his government’s failures. But because the crudest accusations — in particular the ‘Tony BLIAR’ narrative — were not substantiated, he was able to issue a heartfelt ‘sorry, not sorry’ and escape unscathed. 

It was also in 2016 that Tony Blair Associates was closed. Having caught such flak for the alleged conflict of interest between his role as a Middle East peace envoy and taking money from Middle Eastern potentates, it must have been a relief to leave it all behind.

Indeed, it was time to come home — the Brexit wars were just starting and he was determined to do his bit. Writing for UnHerd, Freddie Sayers argued that Blair had a big influence on the Remain strategy. Instead of seeking to achieve an acceptable compromise on the terms of our exit from the European Union, the aim became to overturn the result of the referendum. 

There were those who complained that ignoring the largest mandate in our electoral history was undemocratic, but Blair disagreed — and given some of the governments he has worked with, he should know. In terms of getting Brexit undone, however, the strategy failed. Indeed, from a Remain point of view, it was a disaster of epic proportions — but, luckily, he knows how to walk away from those.    

Of course, by 2020, we had other things to worry about — not least, a deadly pandemic. Undeterred by past errors of judgment, Blair had something to say about that too — only this time he got it right. As an advocate of “first doses first” — i.e. spacing out the first and second shots of the vaccine — he appeared to be well ahead of the game. It should be said the idea was first championed by the US economist Alex Tabarrok; still, Blair boarded the bandwagon early, and thus grabbed himself a share of the credit.

As a result, he’s had a good year. There’s even been talk of a return to front line politics. This month, however, there’s been a complication: Afghanistan. For Blair, this is tricky territory. Our traumatic exit from a 20-year war begs the question as to how we got into it. 

However, he’s playing a clever game on this one too. His statement, published by the Tony Blair Institute on Saturday, is a masterpiece of narrative control. It took the deployment of just one word — “imbecilic” — to capture the headlines. And even if not intended to draw attention to Joe Biden’s cognitive performance, it places the focus firmly on the present not the past. 

Note, though, the subtle rewriting of history. Blair states that “the Taliban were given an ultimatum: yield up the al-Qaeda leadership or be removed from power so that Afghanistan could not be used for further attacks. They refused. We felt there was no safer alternative for our security than keeping our word.” And, he’s right, this was the rationale given for the invasion. 

Further reading
How Tony Blair gets away with it

By Phil Collins

But, then, he continues with the following: “We held out the prospect, backed by substantial commitment, of turning Afghanistan from a failed terror state into a functioning democracy on the mend.” The casual reader might suppose that this was part of the rationale too. But it wasn’t. In 2001, when Tony Blair committed our troops to battle, there was no mention of a nation-building project. 

In 2021, however, he has the “forever war” follow on directly from the invasion as if this were the natural progression of things. In reality, staying in Afghanistan was no more necessary than invading Iraq two years later. Blair shares in the responsibility for both decisions and is thus in no position to throw around accusations of imbecility.

Indeed, who is he to lecture others on something as complex as ending the war that he helped to start? But with Blair, it’s always a case of do as I say, not as I do. 

For instance, in his Afghanistan statement, he urges us to ask whether “Radical Islam” is “a strategic threat”. Yes, would be appear to be his conclusion. But what if the Radical Islam in question takes the form of an absolute monarchy that subjugates women, restricts religious freedom and murders dissidents? Would that stop a well-known philanthropic institute from accepting Saudi money? Er, no. 

Or what about climate change — a subject on which Mr Blair and his Institute are always happy to pronounce? Last week, the Institute published a report on the behavioural changes required to achieve net zero by 2050. There were some detailed calculations how many fewer kilometres we’d need to fly or drive — though nothing specific about the use of private jets by certain ex-Prime Ministers. I also couldn’t find anything about how many fossil fuel companies one can have a lucrative relationship with. I guess we’ll all have to cut back. 

How does Blair get away with it?

Not legally, of course — because you can be sure that he’s well advised on how to stay within the rules. Rather the problem is one of effrontery, not legality. How on Earth does Blair of all people get to preach to the rest of us? And why do we keep listening?

In a sane world, the return of the Taliban would bring Blair’s rehabilitation to an end. But I wonder if it will. Deep down, a section of the public — and a much larger section of the commentariat — are still in love with Tony. 

For leftish liberals of a certain age, 1997 to 2007 was as good as it got: a golden age of competent government, sensible reform and unwoke tolerance. But aprÚs Blair, le déluge: financial meltdown, austerity, populism, Corbyn, Brexit, Boris. 

Of course, that’s a delusion in itself. The disruptions of the 2010s are rooted in the errors of the previous decade. It was New Labour who failed to control immigration or to stop the speculative bubble in the housing market or to regulate the financial sector. It’s true that foreign policy disasters overshadow Blair’s time in office, but what they obscure is an equally disastrous domestic record — one which poisons our politics to the present day. 

For those who still miss him, it’s comforting to think of Tony Blair as a fallen angel. In their eyes he lives on as the tragic hero who made that one big mistake. But it wasn’t just the one and it’s not just faraway places that suffer the consequences.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
2 years ago

Worst Prime Minister for well over 100 years.

Almost every problem facing our country today stems from the Blair Government.

– breakdown of social cohesion as a result of unconstrained immigration – Blair

– creation of precariat graduate class of 50% of young people with worthless degrees expecting graduate wages – Blair

– long tail debt from taxpayer to private sector for white elephant PPP programmes that often don’t even work – Blair

– failure to repurpose education system to cope with new digital economy – Blair

– failure to stand up to federalists in the EU, leading to increased demands for more sovereignty in country – Blair

– separatism in regions caused by increasing separation of legislation, culture and politics – the direct result of devolution – Blair

– reduction in the quality of political discourse from proper debate down to soundbite vs gotcha moments + triumph of style over substance – Blair

……

These are all things he did as pm, not even considering his later grift and frankly despicable post politics career.

He is absolutely the worst.

Charlie Dibsdale
Charlie Dibsdale
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

not least the crazy constitutional changes like the supreme court, and the catastrophe of devolution.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

I think the above is unfair to Blair, but the mistakes that can be attributed fairly to him are enough to easily outweigh the good he did in Ireland::

  • destroying Britain’s university system by encouraging everyone to get a degree. That needs unwinding, back to the pre-1997 position
  • blindly supporting George W in Afghanistan to develop the initial find-Bin Laden-and-kill-him mission into colonisation and regime-building
  • ignoring all the advice and a million on the march in 2003 to pursue the disastrous Iraq war
  • abolishing the millennium-old sport of hunting foxes (my private bugbear)
Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

So not being able to hunt real live foxes is more important to you than his bringing in the parents of the Manchester bombers and vast numbers of ideologically similar migrants

L Paw
L Paw
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

The left really only have little class wars like fox hunting to fight because they have so little to offer in every other area.

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Doubling down on Thatcher’s banksterisation of the economy is easily #1.
Also not on your list is EU mass immigration, Islamisation and gang rape of the UK.

Toby Bray
Toby Bray
2 years ago

Great article. Loathed Blair from the outset. Never trusted him. And once he got messianic in the latter years of his premiership, he seemed completely unhinged. Even after all this time he’s clearly still desperate for power and influence (& unfortunately still has some). A very dangerous piece of work.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

This is probably fair, but it is hard to judge because Blair is such a brilliant, world-class con-man. You really *believed* he was sincere and honest and well-meaning and effective. And when you realised that he was both the helper of the poor and the scourge of scroungers – to different people – you kept believing that he would be true to you and only lied to the others. So when you get to the ’15 minute warning for mass destruction’ and realise that all the time he has been convincing you (and maybe himself – first) about shameless lies with total sincerity, any balanced judgement is hidden by your shame in being taken in and sheer loathing of the man.

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

You really *believed* he was sincere and honest and well-meaning and effective.

Speak for yourself. I have loathed him from the first and was not taken in by him at any point.
The Tories’ demon eyes poster was a wholly fair and accurate evaluation of him that looks absolutely prophetic today.
I still feel like he will somehow end up doing time one day.

Christopher Hilton
Christopher Hilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I agree. The first time I saw him on TV, I thought he was such an insincere con-man, that people could not possibly be taken in by him. But you can fool most of the people most of the time.

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Hilton
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

He was the press’ princess
And they have done nothing to atone

Last edited 2 years ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
John K
John K
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Someone in Government at the time (no names…) once told me that TB had / has the amazing knack of making everyone he talks to think he’s agreeing with them. Then the opposite with the next conversation.
Ministers tried to be the last person to see him in the day, as that was the best chance of getting what you wanted done.
I wouldn’t be surprised that the same applies to Boris. Except of course that Carrie Antoinette is always the last person to get his ear. :((

Christopher Peter
Christopher Peter
2 years ago

“How on Earth does Blair of all people get to preach to the rest of us? And why do we keep listening?”
… I really try not to, but it’s very hard when the BBC keep inviting him on the Today programme and granting him set-piece interviews, and he makes headlines across the MSM whenever he so much as farts. His pronouncements on literally anything are treated as the utterings of a guru. He hasn’t yet expressed an opinion on what I should have for lunch today, but he must know better than me so I probably should ask him.
Actually, what he has to say about Afghanistan might be sort of worth listening to, depending perhaps on what you think of him or his actions over it. At least it’s a subject he knows something about, or at least might be no more or less wrong than a lot of other people.
But his periodic pronouncements on covd for instance have been very hard to stomach. What possible expertise or authority does he have on that? And yet it didn’t stop him lecturing us and the government on vaccines. So he happened to get the first/second dose interval call right – so what? He didn’t come up with that idea, nor did he make the decision to adopt it, nor was he responsible for implementing it. He’s not a scientist and not in power. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that he actually influenced the decision. Why would the government listen to him? And yet he gets some kind of credit for loudly supporting an idea (just one among many opinions he expresses) that wasn’t even his and was probably about to be implemented anyway.
I suspect the majority of people outside the MSM and commentariat don’t give a fig what TB thinks about anything. It’s just not relevant. He’s not an expert on most things and not in government. Most people like me probably just roll their eyes, while many of the younger generation say “Tony who”?

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Peter
Richard Gasson
Richard Gasson
2 years ago

I, too, am constantly baffled by the MSMs continuing invitations to Blair and his henchman Campbell onto their platforms.

Paul Hughes
Paul Hughes
2 years ago

He can fake sincerity like no other politician I have ever seen or heard. On a par with professional conmen, and I’ve dealt with a few.
I suspect it’s an attribute of lawyers who are required to fake complete belief in their client’s version of events in front of a judge jury or tribunal. It’s the Blair family business after all.
A good reason why lawyers are significantly over-represented in parliament, and a good reason why they should not be.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
2 years ago

I think there was an article a couple of years ago, could have easily been on Unherd describing Tony Blair and/or the technocratic class (my interpretation) as being competently incompetent.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

It’s almost like everything Blair has turned his hand to has had the opposite outcome.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Raiment
AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Now here’s a question for extra points… who was the last ‘Best Prime Minister’ (or for that matter ‘Best USA President’)?
No Prime Minister is ‘Best’ for everyone, just as no Prime Minister is ‘Worst’ for everyone – but I suspect over time a consensus builds.
And then there are politicians who are political ‘Grifters’, that is a person who swindles you by means of deception or fraud. There’s an argument that Obama was a grifter, smooth, urbane, winning lots of support, but also not terribly effective. In my opinion Tony Blair could be called a grifter too, but he is so good at it that he is still able to pop up for a turn under the studio lights. But ‘Best’, no, he’s been rumbled.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Maybe Macmillan, Attlee, or Lord Pitt. Though TB warrants being in at least the top 10, probaby top 5.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

That’s a little hard on Obama, who was a decent president, even if not a great one.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

You complain first, that is does not let go, second that he is too silent (on Afghanistan, BLM, …). Heads I win, tails you lose?

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Greatest US Presidents (note that rather than “best”) are Washington, Jefferson Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman and Reagan Greatest UK PMs: Pitt the Elder, Pitt the Younger, Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee, Thatcher.

Last edited 2 years ago by andrew harman
Campbell P
Campbell P
2 years ago

In my travels in the Middle East, one name came up more often than any other name as the most despised and hated Western politician. And to think he became a ‘special ambassador to the Middle East’: One Syrian of Iraqi extraction said to me, ‘If you want to earn our trust or receive our forgiveness, why appoint such a man? It is like sending round your child’s murderer to comfort you in your grief, except that he spends all the time trying to justify himself to you.’ Will he one day receive his due reward?

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
2 years ago

Beautifully well put. Blair was without doubt the most catastrophically dreadful PM we have ever suffered; everything he touch turned to ***t, from university expansionism (that’s gone well!) to letting Brown loose with our money (that went well!) to blithely lecturing us that only a few tens of thousands of immigrants would come to the UK once border controls were relaxed. It was Brown who talked about “some sort of bigoted woman” but it was Blair who created the conditions in which such “bigotry” has to be policed and suppressed.
I can live with that – well, there’s no choice but to live with it. But like Peter I can’t bear the nauseating ‘Prince Across the Water’ hagiographic tones with which Blair’s constant returns are greeted by the MSM. Peter is right – the media adored Blair, and continue to regret his political demise. That’s why every Labour leadership candidate who isn’t an actual supporter of terrorism is fawned over, even when it turns out (in Scotland, in the UK as a whole) that they are typically neither competent nor effective. The media wants a new Blair! And the media won’t rest until it finds one.
Unlike too many Conservatives my conscious is untroubled, because I never voted for him. From the second I heard the new shadow Home Secretary aver that his party would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” I knew that he made me physically sick. That so many millions were seduced by his “What works” [is what makes me richer and you poorer] mantra was a cause for despair. His continued wittering about messes he created (Afghanistan, Iraq, Islamic terror) and those about which he knows nothing (epidemiology, immunology) are likewise emetic; indeed, the one constant of my adult life is that the mere sight of Blair causes the gorge to rise in my throat.
On the other hand, his constituency now returns a Conservative. There’s a true Blairite legacy over which we can all rejoice, while trying not to laugh. Get lost, Blair (alternative Anglo-Saxon forms of that instruction are available), and take that stain of a press secretary, with whom you polluted our national discourse, with you.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

When the US prepared to invade Afghanistan after 9/11, the Taliban offered to ensure that Afghanistan was not used as a base for terrorist attacks on other countries and to hand OBL to an Islamic court. The likely outcome would not have been for OBL to be handed over to the US but for him to live under house arrest in a friendly country. Pretty well what happened. The Taliban’s offer was rejected out of hand.
Bush rejects Taliban offer to hand Bin Laden over | Afghanistan | The Guardian

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago

Holy war against the infidel is legal in Islamic law .

Don Holden
Don Holden
2 years ago

See Groucho Marx re honesty and fair dealing to get Blair’s measure.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Too true.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago

The indelible imprint on my memory was of the protest march, Not in My Name, in London against the government’s option of invasion of Iraq and I remember watching Blair in the Commons, with voice sounding uncertain and a sheen of sweat on his forehead as he committed the UK to war.
At least that was the memory.
It seemed to me to be the day the lesson was that protest, even on such a grand scale, has little impression on those sent into government.

alan mahon
alan mahon
2 years ago

It’s interesting that the writer assumes that people who like Blair are the people who have always liked him. I absolutely hated Blair for the devastating social changes he made to the UK, for the Iraq war, and for his ‘Islingtonisation’ of the Labour party.
But I have applauded some of Blair’s ideas about covid, and on this subject have thought him right and Johnson wrong, despite being a broad supporter of Johnson.
The role of “ex prime minister” can be a very useful one – free from political forces and free from caring about what other think, an ex prime minister can speak what they believe to be the truth. Rather like a supreme court judge.
In the same vein, Teresa May has been a better ex prime minister than prime minister, and at this rate, sadly, I think Boris will do the same.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

I am amazed that any adult was taken in by him,the young could be forgiven for believing that “things could only get better”. The duplicity started with telling us what books could be read, which was at odds with his rhetoric of education, education, education. It continued with us being told “we are all middle class now” and finished with the creation of university education for all. Ridiculous degrees followed, such as how to decorate a Christmas tree. Truly, I know a recipient.
Unwittingly I must have gained a masters in that by now!

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

One word describes Blair and all the rest follows – socialist. The word appears in USSR and Nazi. Socialism and socialists are the basis of all the world’s problems.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
2 years ago

Has anybody considered that back in 2001 the Taliban wanted the US/Allies to invade? Wait it out, destroy local rivals, appeal to the population as a bringer of stability and then be in a position to demand protection money from the US and other nations (like UK). They just had to be patient. How much better the invasion has been for them compared to a more fractured, local conflict where they were just one of a number of a competing players.
Golden rule – never do what your enemy wants, unless you’re sure they’ve got it wrong.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mangle Tangle
andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago

Greatest US Presidents (note that rather than “best”) are Washington, Jefferson Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman and Reagan Greatest UK PMs: Pitt the Elder, Pitt the Younger, Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee, Thatcher.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

Tony Blair was highly active – so of course he made several mistakes. Doesn’t stop him being one of our greatest ever PMs. In several ways it’s still too early to judge his international record; for example, his early championing of international accounting rules relating to beneficial ownership might yet pay off by enabling a much needed global wealth tax.
It’s not too early to judge his domestic record, it’s been well analyses by neutral academics, who found New Labour got good outcomes for the its public spending.
The 2008 global financial crisis was largely caused by a bubble in the US housing market, not the UK. Granted, Blair decided to tackle a great many global problems – with some he was stunningly successful, for some it’s still to early to say, and granted some of his moves can be seen as mistakes (especially for those who think Bush might have aborted Iraq with TB’s support, rather than pressed ahead in a possibly even more reckless way). But it would be a little strained to suggest TB’s at fault for not assuming oversight of US sub-prime.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

“…it’s been well analyses by neutral academics,”
There is no such thing as a neutral academic.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Fair point. The response from many scientists to the lab leak issue has dented even my own faith in academic reports and consensus. Old habits!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Hilarious satire. Please post more often.

John K
John K
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

So everything that went well was because of his brilliance, if it went badly it was someone else’s fault or he was badly advised?

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  John K

Sort of, though I’d not go that far. IMO a mistake that TB can be blamed for was favouring quantitative metrics for driving various public service targets, at the expense of looking after morale, traditional values, and the various embedded public service ethics.
Still, Blair was only following in McNamaras footsteps, and it still seems to be a mistake that folk keep repeating even today, especially in private sector.

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Thought you might appreciate someone agreeing with you, Adam. “The evil that men do lives after them…”(etc.). Definitely Blair did some terrible things, and I’m as annoyed as the author at the continued sycophancy of the media. But Surestart was possibly the best social programm for decades and has of course been trashed and not, as some of the strange commentarors here would have it, by socialists!.There are other items on the credit side, too, including Scottish and Welsh devolution and the Good Friday Agreement – all flawed, for sure, but all a step forward on what went before. Iraq aside, what I personally can’t forgive the Blair government for are (1) the approach you refer to of “if you can’t measure it, it must be worthless” (2) PFI as a way of funding health and education (3) centralising education and removing the powers of heads and teachers on the front line in favour of bland national standards. But he’s still a lot better than Boris – admittedly not a high bar.

Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
2 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Smith

Sure start ruined health visiting. It was meant to help the poorest but became very popular with the middle classes.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Smith

Thank you. I agree with much of what you say. I think Boris too receives his share of undue criticisms. He seems to make far more minor mistakes than TB did, yet for me he gets many of the big calls right (such as on Climate, his support for a bigger state more generally, his awareness of the downside of Lockdown.) And his diplomatic skills for 1 to 1 + small groups are said to be rather outstanding, allbeit he didn’t get a good result recently with Biden.