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 après 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.