October 14, 2019 - 4:22pm

Phil Collins, Times columnist and former speechwriter for Tony Blair, responds to Freddie Sayers’s recent UnHerd piece, How Tony Blair Destroyed the Centre Ground

I don’t myself agree with Tony Blair’s position on Brexit. I don’t want a second referendum and I think we should leave, with a deal. If one emerges from the current negotiations I hope enough MPs vote for it. 

However, I’m afraid I just cannot share Freddie Sayers’s view that Tony Blair is this brilliant. He massively, hugely over-rates his capacities, almost to the point of derangement.  

“More than anything else, this shift explains why political and public opinion is now irreconcilably divided; more than anyone else, it’s thanks to him,” he writes. 

There are four things that make this wrong.

First, he really doesn’t have this power. The Labour MPs who are uncompromising really haven’t got it from him. On the contrary, they don’t want him anywhere near the campaign. They can and do think independently of him. I have tried and tried to get lots of MPs to be more reasonable and they are not interested. Most of the people I am referring to have never met Tony Blair and do not regard him as their reason for acting as they do. It’s just empirically false that he matters this much. 

In fact, the piece does not mention that Labour MPs do not in fact agree with Blair. He has been an advocate of a no deal v remain referendum which nobody else wants. So Sayers’s compliments about his persuasiveness are misplaced. He loves him far too much.

Second, is he really suggesting that Tony Blair’s position made Mark Francois think as he does? [Ed: no] The other side is just as uncompromising. I have an idea for the people who brought us this great idea: vote for it and stop moaning. Get a deal and vote it through. The government has that within its power if it can keep its path together. Even the magical powers of Tony Blair will be unable to stop them. 

At least if you are shelling out blame get the symmetry right. Everyone, on both sides, has been insane. I know because I am a remain voter who advocates leaving and it is very lonely. Almost everyone else is shouting.

Third, it is not true he had a masterplan at the start. I know for a fact he didn’t. Sayers gives him far too much credit. 

Mr Blair and Mr Francois are in it together. Indeed, if you are a Brexiteer who believes Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement was a betrayal and you also believe that Tony Blair has been instrumental in persuading Labour MPs not to vote for it then you owe the former Prime Minster a debt of gratitude. 

Finally, the one Mr Blair undoubtedly got right was Ireland. This was why he said Brexit would not happen. Two people said from the start that Ireland would scupper the whole thing: Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell. Daniel Hannan? Boris Johnson? Michael Gove? Not so much. No, they all thought it would be easy enough and they were wrong. They were simplistic. If you want to examine where Blair really was brilliant it is not in his arguments for a second referendum but in his instant recognition of the administrative complexity of the Irish question. 

Philip Collins is a columnist for The Times and former speechwriter to Tony Blair.