BILL JAMIESON NOVEMBER 22 2016
A rough year it’s proving for the Western world’s Come Back Kids. In America the former president’s wife failed in her bid to recapture the White House for the Clinton family. In France, ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy has been dramatically knocked out of the race to be the centre-Right nominee for next year’s presidential election.
Back home it’s now Tony Blair’s turn to ride the Come-Back bucking bronco. The former three times winner Prime Minister is preparing a return to British politics.
The field, he believes, is wide open. He thinks Theresa May is not up to the job, Jeremy Corbyn is a nut-case, the referendum result can be unpicked and there’s a sufficient number of anti-Brexiteers to provide him with a credible platform for a return to the political centre stage.
Two weeks back my colleague John McGurk set out his doubts: the EU Remainers may claim cross-party support. But after the ‘dodgy dossiers’ on which he took the UK into the war in Iraq, Blair’s credibility and trustworthiness have never recovered.
“Brand Blair” is now widely seen as toxic and pro-Leave Tory back benchers can hardly conceal their glee at the prospect of a voter backlash against a Tony Blair return on the platform of “let’s have another EU referendum”.
A political come-back in any era is a rare achievement. But they are not unknown at Westminster.
Harold Wilson made a dramatic return as Prime Minister in October 1974 after Edward Heath failed to win a majority for his “Who Governs Britain?” election (memo to Theresa May: be sure you know the answer to the question before putting it to voters).
Before then, Winston Churchill came back to the Premiership in 1951 after a crushing defeat by Clement Attlee in 1945.
Earlier eras saw frequent returns to Number 10 by previous prime ministers. Among the outstanding Come Back Kids were the Duke of Wellington in 1834 and the Earl of Derby who made it as PM on three separate occasions.
Then came the revolving door premierships of Disraeli (PM twice) and Gladstone (four times).
Stanley Baldwin entered Downing Street on three occasions.
On the other side of the Atlantic, presidents returning to the White House after an interruption are more rare, the most cited example being Grover Cleveland who was the 22nd and 24th president (1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897). In fact he won the popular vote for three presidential elections and was also the first and to date only President in American history to serve two non-consecutive terms in office.
In France, only one President – Alain Poher – made it to the Elysee twice (in 1969 and again in 1974, on both occasions as an interim president).
But this should not be taken as evidence that French presidents lacked the heady perfume of Je Reviens.
Fate may have intervened to block ambitions: Marie Francois Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death while in office (1894); Paul Deschanel went mad (1920) and Felix Faure died of apoplexy at the Elysee Palace, allegedly in flagrante (1899).
Sarkozy, president from 2007 to 2012, was widely held to be the favourite for the second round, seeking to capitalise on a hard line law-and-order platform. But voters have noted altogether too many changes in tack by Sarkozy to make this credible, while he lost support among Left wing voters who backed Juppe.
But it is the prospect of a Blair Return – supported in Scotland, it is said, by former Scottish Labour leader Jim ‘Spud’ Murphy – that is now firing the political imagination. The problem with this is that Blair has been unable to break free of the Iraq legacy which still dominates recollection of his premiership.
Nor has he been able to alight on a theme, or series of themes, to fire the electorate and rekindle political enthusiasm for him.
He may be right in his view that the rise of the hard-Left in Labour means that “the centre ground is in retreat” and that moderate politicians should “rise to the challenge”. And this comes after he announced he was shutting down his business empire following years of criticism over his money-making ventures.
But it is nowhere near enough. Gladstone stormed back to office in the wake of the Midlothian campaign of 1878-1880 with a series of foreign policy speeches. In these he charged the government with financial incompetence, neglect of domestic legislation, and mismanagement of foreign affairs.
He held out the vision of a world order that combined universalism and inclusiveness, appealing to group feeling, a sense of concern for others and the greater unity of mankind.
Not a bad foundation theme, you would think, for a modern-day elder statesman of the Centre Left – but Blair has so far proved incapable of either linking this to domestic social concerns today (the “Just About Managing”) or striking an inspiring chord in international affairs (his own “peace envoy” work buried under allegations of feather-nesting).
In these febrile times, with all the uncertainty over Brexit, it would be dangerous to rule out unlikely outcomes – the voter insurrections over Brexit and the ascendancy of Donald Trump being salutary lessons.
But a Tony Blair return? Where is the voter engagement? The big rallies? The social media upsurge? Voters look in no mood to splash on the yesteryear perfume of Blair – Je Reviens.