Election 2015: Why Tony Blair still matters
"Former Labour prime minister backs Labour" is one of those news stories that falls into the "dog bites man" variety. Important, perhaps, to the poor chap with a sore leg but hardly news for the rest of us. So why will we spend so much of today discussing Tony Blair's intervention in the election campaign?
1) Tony Blair won general elections. Three, to be precise. He knew how to do something the current generation of political leaders seems unable to do and that is secure majorities in the House of Commons. Any advice he gives Labour will be scrutinised for vicarious wisdom from which the party could benefit with the opinion polls still showing little movement in any direction.
2) Does he still have it? Does the former prime minister still have enough lingering political stardust to win some uncertain voters back to the Labour fold? Can he persuade soft Tory voters that Ed Miliband is not such a raving lefty that they can trust him with their vote? Or does the perma-tanned millionaire diplomat, who led Britain into an unpopular war in Iraq, who does business with shady foreign leaders, have such a toxic reputation that he no longer tickles the underbelly of the British voter?
3) Will Mr Blair be able to hide his disagreements with Mr Miliband over Labour's direction? Neither men's allies pretend to deny that there are not sharp disagreements between them. Mr Miliband has pitched his leadership as a deliberate attempt to "move on" from Blairism and New Labour. Mr Blair warned in the Economist before Christmas against an election "in which a traditional left wing party competes with a traditional right wing party" with the traditional result of a Tory victory. It is notable that in extracts of his speech released over night, Mr Blair says little of what he thinks about the rest of Labour's campaign. Europe is common ground; other subjects are avoided. Why, voters may ask, should they follow Mr Blair's advice when Mr Miliband ignores so much of it himself? Mr Blair nods to this in his speech when he says: "(Mr Miliband) is his own man, with his own convictions and determined to follow them even when they go against the tide. I respect that." The irony is exquisite.
4) Will the Left be able to accept his advice with good grace? Several Labour candidates have already refused his offer of £1,000 to help with their campaigns because they consider his reputation so tarnished it would cost them votes. The Guardian newspaper describes Mr Blair this morning as "an embarrassing aging relative" whom Labour feels obliged to invite to the wedding to avoid questions about why he was not there.
5) Perhaps most importantly, will Mr Blair be able to gain Labour some ground against the Tories? The party has struggled to find a way of hitting back at the Conservative slogan "Tory competence versus Labour chaos" over the economy. Now Labour has belatedly begun remembering that the Conservatives' promise of an EU referendum allows them to warn of Tory uncertainty and division. Above all, his hope is to sharpen the choice before voters: between a Labour government or a Tory referendum that - in his words - would prove a huge distraction to the rest of government. Labour's first attempt at this misfired when it turned out some of the business leaders making this point too were unhappy at being used for party political purposes. But if Mr Blair can be more successful in convincing voters that a Tory-led government might involve risk, then perhaps his day trip to the election will be worthwhile for Labour.