Blair has created a world in which he remains powerful (AĂŻda Amer)


August 7, 2023   19 mins

I

At the end of every week, Tony Blair receives his “box” to review over the weekend. It is no longer the tatty, old red briefcase of a Prime Minister, but a virtual one accessible from his laptop wherever he is in the world. Yet, the process remains much the same as when he was in Downing Street. Those who work for him must submit their papers before the box is closed for the weekend. Blair will then review the documents and add comments before meeting his team the following week. Only those really close to the former PM can email him papers directly.

Such is the life of Blair in “retirement”. Aged 70, he works with the zeal of a man with something still to prove; something to build; something perhaps to redeem. Constantly travelling, Blair spends as much as 70% of his time abroad: raising funds, attending conferences, giving speeches and networking with world leaders, plutocrats, corporate executives and “thought leaders”. He flies on private jets and is escorted in armed cars with security always close by. This is Blair today: no longer Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but Prime Minister of Tony Blair Inc.

Formally, he is “executive chairman” of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, known to all as the TBI. The institute was born in 2017 and now employs more than 800 people worldwide, some with salaries as high as $504,000 (though Blair does not take one). He has offices in London, New York, San Francisco, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Accra, and enough money to stage the slickest political conference in Britain. He has a media team to manage his media “grid”, a policy team to shape national debate, and a delivery team to project-manage his priorities across the world.

Working directly for him, Blair has a chief executive who used to work in No. 10, Catherine Rimmer, a global managing director who once worked for Justin Trudeau, Michael McNair, and an executive vice president who sits on the board of Oracle, one of the world’s biggest tech companies, Awo Ablo. His policy unit, meanwhile, is the only think tank in Britain with American levels of funding and a direct line into both the Government and Opposition, not to mention the Commissioners in Brussels and tech titans in San Francisco.

It is this arm of the TBI which has produced policy papers on everything from Brexit to AI to Covid. Its influence is such that cabinet ministers and even prime ministers — including Boris Johnson and Liz Truss — are regularly in touch. Starmer’s agenda as Labour leader now so closely resembles the policy prescriptions put forward by the TBI, whether on the need for a closer relationship with Europe or a new planning regime, that there is talk throughout Westminster of a Blairite reconquista. He has openly offered his institute to help Starmer if he becomes prime minister.

I

At the end of every week, Tony Blair receives his “box” to review over the weekend. It is no longer the tatty, old red briefcase of a Prime Minister, but a virtual one accessible from his laptop wherever he is in the world. Yet, the process remains much the same as when he was in Downing Street. Those who work for him must submit their papers before the box is closed for the weekend. Blair will then review the documents and add comments before meeting his team the following week. Only those really close to the former PM can email him papers directly.

Such is the life of Blair in “retirement”. Aged 70, he works with the zeal of a man with something still to prove; something to build; something perhaps to redeem. Constantly travelling, Blair spends as much as 70% of his time abroad: raising funds, attending conferences, giving speeches and networking with world leaders, plutocrats, corporate executives and “thought leaders”. He flies on private jets and is escorted in armed cars with security always close by. This is Blair today: no longer Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but Prime Minister of Tony Blair Inc.

Formally, he is “executive chairman” of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, known to all as the TBI. The institute was born in 2017 and now employs more than 800 people worldwide, some with salaries as high as $504,000 (though Blair does not take one). He has offices in London, New York, San Francisco, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Accra, and enough money to stage the slickest political conference in Britain. He has a media team to manage his media “grid”, a policy team to shape national debate, and a delivery team to project-manage his priorities across the world.

Working directly for him, Blair has a chief executive who used to work in No. 10, Catherine Rimmer, a global managing director who once worked for Justin Trudeau, Michael McNair, and an executive vice president who sits on the board of Oracle, one of the world’s biggest tech companies, Awo Ablo. His policy unit, meanwhile, is the only think tank in Britain with American levels of funding and a direct line into both the Government and Opposition, not to mention the Commissioners in Brussels and tech titans in San Francisco.

It is this arm of the TBI which has produced policy papers on everything from Brexit to AI to Covid. Its influence is such that cabinet ministers and even prime ministers — including Boris Johnson and Liz Truss — are regularly in touch. Starmer’s agenda as Labour leader now so closely resembles the policy prescriptions put forward by the TBI, whether on the need for a closer relationship with Europe or a new planning regime, that there is talk throughout Westminster of a Blairite reconquista. He has openly offered his institute to help Starmer if he becomes prime minister.

And yet, it is not the policy unit that is the TBI’s driving force, but its consultancy operation. Today, the “government advisory work” is responsible for almost all of its revenue, bringing in $79.4 million of its $81 million turnover in 2021, according to the latest accounts. In a recent round of internal restructuring, this side of the organisation was prioritised, resulting in a number of policy specialists leaving, including the policy unit’s leading man, Ian Mulheirn. (When we approached the TBI a spokesman insisted policy making had not been “de-prioritised” and remained one of the three pillars of the institute’s work, alongside “strategy and delivery”.)

 

The consultancy arm, meanwhile, is expanding rapidly, offering advice to governments around the world on the art of “delivery”. Look at the TBI’s recruitment page and there is an extraordinary array of jobs available: four in Abu Dhabi, three in Eastern Europe, two in each of the Philippines, Rwanda, Athens and Cîte d’Ivoire, and one each in Israel, Indonesia, Kenya, New York, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and Miami. Meanwhile, its offices in London, Singapore and Delhi are all expanding.

The TBI has become, in the words of one figure who knows the institute well, a “McKinsey for world leaders” — a global consultancy business which advises governments on how to govern, while also acting as a middle man between the world’s political and business elites. Astride it all, of course, is Blair himself, the man who decides what the organisation should focus on, who it should help and where it should expand. Like a senior partner in a law firm, Blair brings in the clients, using his connections with the rich and powerful.

It is important to stop for a moment to appreciate just how mould-breaking Blair’s post-premiership life really is for a British politician. When Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister, she joined the House of Lords. When John Major left office, he became chairman of a cricket club. Gordon Brown became a UN special envoy, David Cameron took on various chairmanship roles, Theresa May and Liz Truss remained in parliament and Boris Johnson returned to his old life writing newspaper columns. None of them tried to build anything on the scale of Blair’s globe-spanning TBI, a British “Clinton Foundation” combining philanthropy, business and political influence. Blair has assembled something so big, in fact, that according to one figure close to another former prime minister, he has approached at least one of those who succeeded him in No. 10 to see if they might be interested in working with him.

But the question I keep coming back to is: why?

II

At Blair’s Future of Britain conference in July, I watched as he weaved through a packed drinks reception, glass of water in hand, posing for selfies, imparting his wisdom. I hoped to grab a word. But such was the scrum of acolytes and security, I could not get close.

As Blair worked the room, hugging old friends and granting quick audiences to starstruck Labour MPs, it felt like being back in the early 2000s. For many of my generation, Blair will always be a defining politician. For me this is doubly so; I grew up in Sedgefield, his constituency, and knew him, tangentially, through my parents who were both Labour activists. I knew all those who worked for him and, indeed, spent time in his constituency office myself as a wide-eyed work experience kid. Back then, Blair seemed almost the ur-politician, the archetype others copied to win power. To this day, seeing him still feels a little bit like journeying back in time.

Blair leaves Trimdon Labour Club after handing in his resignation as the MP for Sedgfield (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

I am not the only one who thinks this. One person who worked at TBI, and has since left, compared life inside the institute to the movie Goodbye Lenin  — in which a woman who fell into a coma before the fall of the Berlin Wall is shielded from the truth by her protective son. Blair’s new life, according to some former colleagues, feels like one long prime ministerial cosplay in which everybody must play their part. There is the media grid, the box, the police protection officers, armoured cars, private jets and constant meetings with world leaders and VIPs. Spend a day in the TBI offices in central London and you might see anyone popping in: a leading Indian politician one day, Bill Clinton greeting his old friend with a bear hug the next.

Yet there are plenty of giveaways that time has not stood still: the grey hair; the suede Chelsea boots which are a shade too informal for frontline politics; the Apple Watch poking out from under his jacket. The truth is that Blair is only just emerging from a period of his life when public animosity meant that he rarely ventured out in London and, indeed, felt more comfortable not just out of the city but out of the country itself. Looking back, it is astonishing how quickly his reputation fell after leaving office.

Blair resigned as prime minister in 2007 with high hopes for his new life. He was given a standing ovation as he left the House of Commons for the last time and was immediately confirmed as the new “Middle East envoy” representing the UN, EU, US and Russia. There was hope he could do for Israel-Palestine what he had done for Northern Ireland. The tides of history, however, were no longer with him. By the time he left the envoy job in 2015, peace in the Middle East was further away than ever.

During this period, the world Blair had tried to build as prime minister seemed to collapse all around him. Soon after the financial crisis, which immediately followed his resignation, Blair lost his bid to become the first permanent president of the European Council, the stain from Iraq just too great. And then his old rival Gordon Brown ordered an independent inquiry into the Iraq War — a trial Blair could neither win nor escape.

This was when he set up the basic structure of his life today, creating a number of charities in the areas of policy he was most interested in: the Tony Blair Sports Foundation in the North East of England; the Tony Blair Faith Foundation which worked across the world; the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative focused on development. He also set up “Tony Blair Associates”, his consultancy business. To begin with, each of these organisations were nominally separate, which meant most of the attention went on the business wing, leaving the impression that he was simply hawking his services among a range of unsavoury governments — from the Kuwaitis to the Kazakhs —  to the highest bidder, his post-premiership life one primarily driven by money-making.

Fair or not, the fact that Blair was evidently making a lot of money did not sit well with a public who had been thrust into a world of austerity immediately after he left office. He had swiftly taken a well-paid seat on the board of JPMorgan Chase and joined the lucrative speaking circuit. This work brought in enough money to allow him to swap his old constituency home Sedgefield for two multi-million pound properties: one in London and another in the Home Counties. It did not go unnoticed that he seemed to be recreating the life he had in No. 10, only now freed from having to care about public opinion. His Georgian townhouse in London looked just like Downing Street and his country retreat was not only near Chequers, but had the same air of Chilterns grandeur.

Taken together, the money-making nature of his post-Downing Street life almost destroyed Blair’s public image. Even his decision to give away the entire £4.6 million advance for his memoir, A Journey, was dismissed as a publicity stunt.

But then came Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and Donald Trump — the populist revolt. This was the moment his resurrection really began. Brexit, in particular, replaced Iraq in the public consciousness as the defining political event, with a new set of political villains whom the public could boo and whistle.

This period of political turmoil, according to many I spoke to, shocked Blair into becoming more involved in politics again. Blair took an important step towards rebuilding his public image by merging all his business and charitable interests into one organisation — the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. From this point on, instead of having a consultancy business and several charities, Blair presided over one giant not-for-profit organisation.

In 2017, he set up a unit called “renewing the centre”, recruiting a team of smart, young Anglo-Americans to come up with ideas to save the liberal order, as they saw it. From the beginning, though, there were tensions in the team. Some believed that given Blair’s background as Labour leader, “renewing the centre” meant, in effect, renewing the centre-left, finding new policies that would rebuild the coalition of progressives he had once so successfully amassed. Others, though, saw it differently. For them, “renewing the centre” meant renewing both the centre-left and the centre-right, and even forming an alliance where necessary to defeat their existential enemy: the “populists” who must never be appeased. I was told Blair was firmly in the latter camp.

For some, he was drawing exactly the wrong conclusion, confirming the populist narrative that there was no difference between the traditional parties, and that neither of which would allow any real change to the system. Over the years that followed, some of Blair’s more Left-leaning recruits departed in frustration, believing, as one person put it, that Blair was not really any different from George Osborne when it came to austerity. Others said the tensions in the project ran even deeper.

“It was really fraught,” said one. “We were trying to save democracy — but from Mayfair.” Could the TBI really learn lessons this way? Another simply said: “It was a failure.” At this time, Blair was devoting much of his energy to campaigning for a second referendum — a fight he would eventually lose in December 2019, when Boris Johnson comfortably defeated Corbyn’s Labour with the promise to “Get Brexit Done”. The centre was collapsing.

And yet, from this point of political impotence, Blair’s reputation and influence has recovered. As the pandemic began to spread across Europe the following year, Blair put his policy unit to work. As cases escalated, the TBI released paper after paper on everything from face masks to mass testing and even international vaccine passports, always seemingly one step ahead of the Government. When the country was desperate to be vaccinated, Blair released a paper calling for a delay between the first and second doses to improve efficiency. The Government quickly announced the same plan.

Finally, Blair seemed to be back in touch with the zeitgeist. The pandemic was an ultimate test in apolitical “delivery” — that what matters is what works. He was back. His institute was flying and donations were beginning to pour in from around the world. But under the surface, all was not well.

III

In his memoir, A Journey, published in 2010, Blair describes how he helps developing countries. First, he hires teams of “highly qualified young people” from “Governments, the World Bank, McKinsey or private banks”. Then, after hiring these bright young things, he sends them out into the world to “build capacity, so that in time the locals can do it”.

Over the past few years, Blair has rapidly expanded his team of consultants. In Africa alone, the TBI is active in Rwanda, Senegal, Nigeria, Mozambique, Togo, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Teams of TBI experts sit at the heart of foreign governments, advising on everything from how to improve crop yields to the creation of “presidential delivery units”.

A map showing where TBI is known to have operated.

A quick look at the description for its “Country Director Eastern Europe” job gives an indication of the kind of work the institute does. “The Country Director will lead a TBI team embedded in country at the highest level of Government,” the advert reads. One of its key responsibilities is to “build and maintain a relationship of trust with your counterpart (typically President or Prime Minister level)”. In doing so, the candidate must be able to “suggest and convince your counterpart on key development priorities that TBI could be supporting”. What would be the reaction if this was the other way round: if, say, the Clinton Foundation, advertised for a team of people to be embedded in the British government or simply to “suggest and convince” the British prime minister to follow their advice?

Yet the TBI is proud of what its teams have been able to achieve . “In Nigeria, our energy advisor worked on the design and implementation of a mass solar-connection programme called Solar Power Naija that aims to provide electricity access to 25 million Nigerians,” the report states. In another example, the TBI said it “supported the government of Burkina Faso to improve the country’s agriculture and agri-business outcomes”. In doing so, the TBI claims, they helped increase the country’s “fertiliser-blending capacity”.

To the TBI’s critics, this is just the gloss of “deliverology”, the belief that what is really holding a country back is not so much deep structural challenges such as corruption, economic exploitation or colonialism — but bad governance. And this can be fixed. The problem, in other words, is largely technocratic, not political.

Another criticism levelled at Blair is that what he is really doing is advising on how to build a version of the Downing Street he created 20 years ago — right at the very moment the British state has shown itself to be so woefully dysfunctional (something, ironically, Blair also believes).

But it’s not just cynical Brits who are questioning the effectiveness of the TBI. There are also plenty of raised eyebrows in Africa. In June, Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper published an op-ed by an academic which dismissed Blair as a “self-serving lobbyist
 projecting dubious altruistic inclinations”. Nigeria, it said, must not “willingly [offer] itself as a cheap financial rehabilitation home for retired British Prime Ministers”.

In Malawi, there is similar public disquiet. The TBI first arrived in the country in 2012 soon after the former president Joyce Banda came to power. However, after Banda’s government was overwhelmed by an extraordinary corruption scandal known as “Cashgate” — in which it emerged that as much as $250 million had been looted from public funds after a junior civil servant was found with $300,000 in cash in the boot of his car — the TBI left.

Blair with Joyce Banda, Malawi’s President, in 2012 (Amos Gumulira/AFP/GettyImages)

It returned to the country, though, in 2020, after Lazarus Chakwera, its new president, took over and asked for help to “strengthen its delivery and implementation mechanisms”. Not everyone in Malawi was happy about it. Charles Kajoloweka, executive director of the human rights and governance watchdog Youth and Society, said it was almost impossible to to find out exactly what TBI was doing. William Kambwandira, executive director at the Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency in Malawi, agreed. “Our greatest concern is that government dealings with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change have been kept under wraps.” In a statement, the TBI said the “sole purpose” of its work was “to ensure the government is delivering on its commitments to improve the public services it provides to its people.”

Such criticisms get to the heart of why some are sceptical about the TBI’s modus operandi. The TBI offers technocratic support based on a technocratic assessment of development, but it does so to political leaders often based on personal relationships with Blair himself.

The former Malawian president Banda explained how her relationship with Blair worked. “When I ascended to power, he and his wife Cherie flew over to Malawi within one week of my presidency,” she told UnHerd. “When he came over, during a state banquet hosted in his honour, I had a conversation with him where I personally requested [support] and he offered to send over three of his staffers to help me, due to the fact that I had assumed the presidency abruptly. I remember that is when he told me about his global programme and offered to lend me a hand. I remember what he said: ‘I have several people working in the region and I will shift them around.’” As Banda put it: “There was no formal agreement or big ceremony because he was just helping a friend.”

IV

In April 2022, Blair needed someone to manage the TBI’s vast, global consultancy. He hired Mike McNair from McKinsey, a Canadian who had worked for years as Justin Trudeau’s policy chief in Ottawa. Since arriving, McNair has overseen a rapid expansion of the organisation.

The nature of this expansion, however, raises questions about the TBI’s future and how it is funded. There has been a push from the TBI to access philanthropic donations and to create partnerships with business. One relationship in particular jumps out from the TBI accounts: that with the tech billionaire, Larry Ellison, and his company Oracle.

Blair entertains Larry Ellison at Downing Street in 2003 (Alamy)

Ellison, 78, is currently thought to be the world’s fourth richest man, with an estimated fortune of $140 billion. Like many tech billionaires, he has cultivated a reputation as something of an iconoclastic sage, a workaholic visionary who can see the future more clearly than others — and, importantly, deliver it. Like his friend Elon Musk, Ellison is known for his almost impish impatience, his mind moving from one grand projet to the next, often making grand claims about their revolutionary potential only to move on to something else soon after. “I am a sprinter,” Ellison once remarked. “I rest, I sprint, I rest, I sprint again.”

It should not have been a great surprise, then, when in 2020 Ellison announced that he was suddenly disbanding his entire team at the Larry Ellison Foundation in London. The unit was led by Matthew Symonds, the former Economist journalist (and father of Carrie Johnson) who wrote an “intimate” authorised biography of Ellison, published in 2003. When I rang Symonds, he immediately hung up.

Ellison’s decision to close his London operation came at the height of the pandemic, announcing that he wanted to focus all his charitable energies on “medical philanthropy”. In many ways, this made perfect sense. Ellison bankrolls the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine, focused on trying to find cures for cancer.

At around the same time, Ellison began deepening his relationship with Blair. In partnership with the TBI, Ellison’s Institute for Transformative Medicine created a “Global Health Security Consortium” with scientists at Oxford University to provide “support for leaders around the world to help them prepare for the health-security challenges of tomorrow”. Ellison also began giving more and more money to the TBI. In 2019, the Larry Ellison Foundation gave the TBI $10 million with a further $20 million committed. By 2021, this had risen to $33 million, with plans for future donations of a further $49 million.

At some point, Blair was evidently able to convince Ellison that the TBI’s methods were a more effective way to make the world a better place than his previous efforts. And the partnership between the two does have a certain logic. Blair believes that “the power of technology” must be harnessed by bringing together politicians and “innovators”. This, then, is one of the central purposes of the TBI as Blair sees it: to act as a matchmaker for plutocrats such as Ellison and political figures such as himself. But it is an approach that raises awkward questions about power and transparency.

Alongside the Global Health Security Consortium, the two of them have also created a “Tech for Development” programme. The idea is to help developing countries build “comprehensive digital infrastructure”. Together, Blair and Ellison have rolled this out in Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal for free, with a view to building electronic health records so that governments know who is vaccinated and who isn’t.

Not everyone, however, looks so kindly upon the partnership. Ellison, after all, is a divisive figure. To some, he is an intense visionary in the same mould as Musk, with the same intense desire to conquer all in business. As Symonds writes in his biography, Ellison has an “unquenchable optimism and almost messianic self belief”. And he is not shy about it. During the pandemic, Ellison offered his medical research facilities to President Trump free of charge. He has bought an island in Hawaii which he uses as both an ultra-exclusive resort for the rich and a living agricultural experiment, part of his grand plan to secure global food supplies. Even as he approaches his 80th birthday, he is still dreaming of his next great breakthrough as well as his legacy. Perhaps that’s why, last year, he made one of the biggest gambles of his career.

In June 2022, Ellison bought the electronic health record company Cerner for almost $30 billion. It was the largest buy-out of his life. Almost immediately after the purchase, Ellison announced that it would help him realise his aim of building a single national database for health records. The plan was endorsed by Blair. His hope is that, using Oracle technology, every American will be able to store their medical data online. It is a visionary move, which, if it pays off, would make Oracle the Amazon of health records. To some, the partnership with the TBI makes good philanthropic and commercial sense: if Oracle can show that digital health records work in Africa, why not elsewhere? And by partnering with the TBI, Oracle gains access to parts of the world it might not have been able to reach before.

The problem is that such a scheme to create a single national health record database is not only incredibly complex and hard to deliver, but extremely contentious. In fact, the main objection is not technocratic, but political — even moral. Do we want every health record to be stored on a cloud run by one corporation? Oracle is already facing a lawsuit in the US over claims it has unlawfully collected information on 5 billion people.

Larry Ellison at the 2014 Oracle Open World Conference in San Francisco (Kimberly White/Getty Images)

Whether you see the partnership between Blair and Ellison charitably or otherwise, it reveals an important reality about today’s world and the way power works in practice. Blair and Ellison operate in a sphere of hyper-connected individuals (one board member, for instance, is Baroness Rona Fairhead, Boris Johnson’s former minister for trade and export promotion). They talk and meet each other regularly, making important decisions that affect the lives of many people, in ways which are far harder to scrutinise than those taken by governments and political leaders.

Others I spoke to said it is not possible to judge Blair’s enthusiasm for this technology without acknowledging the fact that his institute is partially dependent on donations from a tech billionaire. Some of those who have previously worked closely with Blair went further, arguing that the conflicts of interests within Blair’s new life go even deeper, extending into the heart of the organisation itself. One arm of the TBI might be writing papers on how to protect the international liberal order, for instance, while the consulting arm is embedded with illiberal governments who pose a challenge to that very same order.

Rather than hide this, the TBI actively advertises its partnerships with business, arguing that the “partnerships” it has built up, alongside the donations it receives, allow it to do “the great bulk” of its consultancy work at no cost to governments. When it comes to tricky questions such as patient privacy, Blair is adamant that they do not undermine the transformative potential of technology. In Malawi, for example, the TBI boasts of its partnership with Musk’s “Starlink” internet service, which helped hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by a cyclone. Blair’s entire vision today is for governments to become more effective by linking the kind of strategy, delivery and policy units he had in No. 10 with the kind of technology that was not available to him. Just as he wanted to introduce ID cards back then, he now supports digital ID cards today, as well as vaccine passports and vast new health databases to tackle the spread of disease. As Blair sees it, his partnership with Oracle is just pragmatic policymaking.

But like Ellison, Blair is something of a utopian futurist. He believes, almost as a faith, in the power of technology. Blair is a good boss, according to many I spoke to, because he is always so upbeat and energetic, but when it comes to technology he is a little too “naive” about its possibilities. Another former employee suggests he is “fatalist” about technology in the same way he was fatalist about globalisation — not thinking critically enough about its risks and political consequences. The greatest irony, though, is that such wide-eyed belief in technology now feels almost old-fashioned. To a younger generation who grew up in a world dominated by Big Tech and Big Pharma, the dominance of giant corporations run by tech plutocrats feels less utopian than dystopian.

V

When Blair left office, he consoled himself with the thought that his life was not over. As he wrote in A Journey, he’d always had a bigger passion than politics: religion. Religion gave him purpose. “There is so much frailty still to overcome,” he concluded in his memoir. “But in overcoming it lies the meaning of life.”

But what are these frailties Blair must overcome? According to Catholic teaching, “sins of frailty” are minor acts committed through “indecision, weakness, lack of vigilance or courage”. Those who have previously worked closely with him see a bit of all these in Blair. Some believe he too often shies away from conflict, even today. In No. 10, he outsourced being the bad guy to Alastair Campbell and did not confront and demote Gordon Brown soon enough, which undermined his premiership. Some believe Blair is now shying away from confronting Starmer, a man he believes will become prime minister, but, according to a number of people I spoke to, not a sufficiently reforming one. Even as Blair battled to save centrism, he was careful not to burn bridges with the Trump or Johnson governments, or indeed any of the illiberal governments he works with.

‘There is so much frailty still to overcome.’ (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Is this is a sign of indecisiveness? It is striking that even those who most like and respect him are unclear what exactly he wants from the TBI. Does he really want it to be the McKinsey for world leaders? Or a think tank? And for what purpose exactly? To Blair, this type of thinking is overly reductive. To have a political impact you must have policies and the ability to implement them. But it is also for this reason that there is what one former employee described as a certain whimsy to the TBI — an organisation less committed to the service of an abstract goal than to the aspirations of Blair himself. If Tony wants something, it happens; if he wants to help someone he helps them.

The more I studied him, the more I wondered whether his biggest frailty of all is simply the desire to remain relevant, the frailty that J.D. Salinger once described as, “not having the courage to be an absolute nobody”. Blair was a somebody once and it is very difficult to give that up. He had power to do things and he still wants to do things — and so he needs power. But to get power you need money and connections and ideas and people. And he now has all those things in droves.

This is the reason he continues to work as hard as he does, taking his box home at weekends, raising money, flying around the world, attending conferences. Maintaining the network becomes an intrinsic goal in itself. This helps explain why Blair takes meetings with world leaders and works for countries many would avoid. He has what one person described as a deep, primal need to be “connected”.

Today, Blair lives the life of a prime minister, but with the freedom to shake off the petty realities of government, working on campaigns to help American governors one moment, flying in to help embattled African leaders the next; all while working on grand plans to change the world with exciting, utopian tech bros in California.

But how much of this is actually real? “Do governments really want his strategic advice,” one person who knows Blair put it to me, “or his phone number?” Do those companies he has partnered with really have only altruistic intentions? And do political leaders really only work with him to make their governments more effective? The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in the ambiguous soup of human motivation; in the flawed, frail characters of ordinary human beings with conflicting aspirations, trying to do good in the world and for themselves.

​​Blair today is more influential than any other former prime minister: he has built an empire that connects business to power and himself to everyone. In the 15 years since he left office, Blair has created a world in which he might not be prime minister but he remains powerful. And that is the point. The power is the point.

 

 

Additional reporting: Jack McBrams


Tom McTague is UnHerd‘s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

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