The former prime minister told reporters at the end of a speech about the threat of a European Union referendum: “So you understand this and get it fully – I support him 100% to lead our party to victory at the next election.”
Blair was making the speech on Tuesday in his old constituency of Sedgefield to support the Labour campaign, while Miliband campaigned in Bristol.
The three-time election winner dismissed questions about why he was not sharing a platform with the Labour leader. “We are a party that can do more than one thing at once,” Blair said, pointing out that Miliband was campaigning in south-west England on the health service.
“I agree with him particularly about what he has said – the central challenge is inequality in our country today,” he said of Miliband. “It is absolutely right to know that the times have changed and this is a huge issue for people and he has got a good set of policies to deal with them.
“There has always been division in the Labour party but what we share in common is a deep and profound belief in social justice and in the belief that it is the purpose of a Labour government to give opportunity to those that do not have it.”
In the past Blair has emphasised that he thinks elections are won on the centre ground, and in choosing the EU and Scottish independence as the two themes of his speech, highlighted two issues in which he is agreement with Miliband.
With Labour trailing the Scottish National party in the polls, he admitted: “Nationalism is a powerful sentiment and, let that genie out of the bottle and it is a Herculean task to get it back in the bottle, and reason alone struggles.
“We do face a tough challenge in Scotland and we have got a great new leader in Scotland and a great case to make.”
He continued: “The case for economic independence was always weak because of the way our economies have integrated over the years. Now that case has collapsed along with the oil price. All the calculations made at the time of the referendum on revenue, balance of payments, foreign exchange are massively reduced because the oil price has halved.”
Blair said he laughed when he heard the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, challenge Miliband during the recent TV debate on whether he had voted for Tory spending cuts.
“The reality is that if Scotland had voted to exit the UK, it would now be in economic trauma trying to negotiate its currency against a backdrop of a sliding global devaluation of oil-related economies. Never mind Tory spending cuts; they would be dwarfed by the SNP cuts necessary to keep the Scottish economy afloat in the radically altered market conditions we now face.”
But despite “that rational evisceration of the SNP’s economic policies”, polls showed support for the SNP was now higher than at the time of the referendum.
Blair said the referendum on EU membership carried the same risks, warning that the prime minister “will be spending more energy, will have more sleepless nights on it than literally any other issue”. David Cameron “knows the vastness of the decision, he knows the penalty of failure, he knows it will define his legacy”.
After the Scottish referendum, Cameron knew the “perilous fragility of the public’s support for the sensible choice”.
Blair predicted the referendum would be a huge distraction for both Cameron and Britain. “It will take precedence over education, NHS, law and order, the lot. The oddest thing of all about having this referendum is the prime minister does not really believe we should leave Europe, not even the Europe as it is today. This is concession to party, a manoeuvre to access some of the Ukip vote, a sop to the rampant anti-European feeling of parts of the media.”
Although Cameron said a Labour victory would lead to chaos, the true chaos would lie in a prime minister committed to a referendum by 2017 on Britain’s place in the world, Blair said. And even if the referendum was won, as Scotland had shown, the argument would not end.
Blair praised Miliband for standing against the tide on the EU, and said Eurosceptics “need to get real about how difficult it would be for Britain to negotiate a new relationship with the EU. If Britain left, the rest of Europe will be vigorous in ensuring the UK gets no special treatment.”
He said he was aghast at some of the arguments for holding a referendum, saying it was a completely unacceptable gamble with the UK’s future and should only be held if it was thought to be important to the national interest.
Blair said the case for staying in the EU was about more than business or money, but about Britain’s role in the world. Arguing that the two mutually reinforcing pillars of UK foreign policy were Europe and the US, he warned that the rise of China, India, Indonesia was resulting in other countries banding together to match the new superpowers in what he described as a global adjustment.
He warned against the UK’s “semiconscious torpor” about the EU, reminding voters that the country only woke up late to the threat that the UK was about to break up and leave England in the second division of nations.
He also said the case for reform inside the EU could be won, saying the movement of change in Europe would hugely benefit the UK in leading the case for reform.
Blair criticised what he described as the mean-spirited nationalism of Ukip.
“National pride is a great thing, nationalism as a political force in the hands of parties like Ukip is almost always ugly, and despite being wrapped in the garb of high-sounding phrases, can never disguise its essential mean spirit.”
This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th April 2015 12.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010