First the party hustings. Now the after-party hustings. The hot, word-of-mouth buzz about a possible reunion gig.
The location so secret it could not be revealed by email. You either got the phone call or you didn’t. “This could be 1992,” said one early arrival. The achingly unhip venue of the Chartered Accountants Hall in central London only added to the sense of magical possibility. The messiah was back in town and a hardcore New Labour faithful of the good, the bad and the long-forgotten had passed up breakfast to hear an acoustic set of his greatest hits.
And at the start, it almost could have been 1992 again, as Tony Blair threw back the years to remind his audience of why he had not only won three elections on the bounce but was still the most likely Labour politician to win another. He looked young again, his voice loose with a rediscovered confidence. He didn’t want to give a speech about how to win, because that would just play into the most debilitating feature of the current debate, he said, sorrowfully. Before going on to do just that.
Blair looked out at his believers and they believed. He had never wanted power for power’s sake. It would have been a cop-out for him to take the easy, leftist route to victory. Rather, he had chosen the political road less travelled. There was no division between pragmatism and principle; in an ever-changing world, there was no virtue in values that remained unchanged. Elections were won in the centre ground, and if the centre ground was shifting rightwards, that’s where the principles of a truly modern liberalism were to be uncovered. Seek and ye shall find.
It was a brief, mesmeric return to the soothing cocoon of a moral universe that was both ever shifting and at the same time eternal. Then the mirror cracked. Blair’s voice began to falter, his face melted to reveal the tortured scream of the political wilderness and the gig morphed into a This Is Your Life knockoff for an overindulged old timer on a budget cable TV station.
The familiar tics of “By the way” and “Let me just say this” that used to make listeners fall into his eyes now felt mechanical and dated. The narrative that there was no intrinsic tradeoff to be made between principle and the pragmatics of re-election no longer felt quite so easy or convincing. The longer Blair carried on talking, the harder it became not to hear the voice of a rather ropey management consultant whose speciality was platitudes.
“What the party needs to do is root and branch thinking,” he said, giving few pointers to what that might entail. “The world is a fascinating place and we need to be engaged with it. We need to remember how to connect with people.” The pathos in Blair not realising this was an ability he had long since lost escaped only him. If these are the kinds of leadership insights corporations are paying £200,000 an hour to hear, then brain death awaits us all.
There were no mentions of the Chilcot inquiry or friendly Kazakhstani leaders, because it just wasn’t that kind of event. To make sure it stayed that way, the organisers chose to prevent the media from asking any questions. This was all about Blair reminding everyone that Jeremy Corbyn was the new Satan, settling a few old scores with Gordon Brown and a laying on of hands for she-who-could-not-be-named. Liz Kendall was probably grateful for that small mercy.
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