There was a time when Tony Blair and his allies in the Labour Party were indestructible. Back in the late-1990s they were the youthful, charismatic figureheads of a changing political landscape, and with their boundless energy and telegenic style they seemed to embody a fresh common ground of public opinion, unashamedly progressive and socially liberal yet also pro-business and fiscally responsible. Three election victories and the collapse of the Conservative Party solidified New Labour’s standing as an unassailable political force, leading many to wonder whether 21st Century Britain would be dominated by this new kind of centrist, metropolitan politics.
It has taken less than a decade for New Labour to be thoroughly obliterated as an electoral force. Gordon Brown presided over the managed decline of this once rock-solid government, culminating in crushing defeat at the 2010 general election, and under the stewardship of Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn the party has moved further and further away from both the ideological centre-ground and the realms of political credibility. The Labour Party is back in the hands of the socialists, and these revisionists are determined to dismiss the Blair era as a heretical aberration.
However, it is not just the Labour leadership that is turning its back on Tony Blair. A recent YouGov survey suggests that his approval ratings languish at a dismal 14%, with less than 20% of Labour voters viewing him favourably, making him the most unpopular politician in the country (only Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin received lower scores). Such figures are astonishing; political leaders almost always become more popular after leaving office, whereas Blair’s ratings have steadily declined since he bowed out of frontline politics a decade ago. This is the man who won three consecutive general elections, transformed the Labour Party and was once seen as the embodiment of modernity, yet he is now universally despised like no other former Prime Minister. Not even Jeremy Corbyn’s catastrophic leadership has been enough to make voters nostalgic for the Blair years.
In many ways, it is sad to see Blair’s name become so toxic. Despite his faults, he did a lot of good during his three terms as Prime Minister, and the level of scorn that is now directed towards him from both left and right is largely unjustified. It would be easy to blame the Iraq War as so many do, but that doesn’t come close to telling the full story. The legacy of that war certainly remains deeply unpopular, but under normal circumstances the ten years since Blair left office would have gone some way to soften public opinion. For proof of this, one only has to look across the Atlantic to see how George W Bush’s popularity has surged since leaving office; like Blair, Bush was hit hard for his stewardship of the conflict in Iraq, yet in recent years his approval ratings have risen to healthy levels, with around half of Americans now viewing him favourably. Blair, in contrast, has never been so reviled.
The truth is that the British public no longer trusts Tony Blair. The man who was cheered into Downing Street by flag-waving crowds of supporters in 1997 is now seen as corrupt, greedy and self-serving. Voters never really believed that Blair was a socialist, or even on the left of British politics, and for a long time that worked in his favour; he was seen as someone who would lead the country in broadly the same direction as the Conservatives, but in a more tolerant and compassionate manner. However, no one expected that he would turn his back on public service after leaving Downing Street in order to accumulate a vast fortune, and when he did it confirmed suspicions that his only real concern had always been his own personal enrichment.
That is why no one listens anymore when Blair occasionally pops up to defend his legacy or weigh in on the issues of the day, as demonstrated last week when he called on supporters of the EU to ‘rise up’ and block Brexit. Even many passionate Remainers criticised Blair’s intervention, stating that he is the wrong man to lead the pro-European movement due to his toxic public image, whilst voters in his Brexit-voting old constituency of Sedgefield in County Durham made it clear that they did not welcome the return of their former MP. This week, he was joined by another New Labour grandee, former Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, who has positioned himself as the de facto leader of anti-Brexit forces in the House of Lords ahead of the upcoming vote on triggering Article 50 in the Upper House, but Mandelson was also shot down as an unwanted voice of the past. The Blairites have lost their powers of persuasion, and by speaking out so strongly against the referendum result they only strengthen the forces of euroscepticism.