Tony Blair: timid Labour risks becoming handmaiden of Brexit

Labour will become “the handmaiden of Brexit” if it continues to prevaricate and be timid over the issue, Tony Blair has warned in a passionate call for the party he formerly led to oppose the government on leaving the EU.

In a lengthy article published on his own website, coinciding with the release of a report from his political institute detailing the current state of play over Brexit, Blair reiterates his call for the British people to have the final decision on whether the withdrawal from the EU goes ahead or not.

Describing 2018 as “the year when the fate of Brexit and thus of Britain will be decided”, Blair is open about his opposition to leaving the EU and argues that the 2016 referendum cannot be seen as binding as it contained no detail on what a post-Brexit future would involve.

Much of the 2,300-word article lambasts the Conservatives’ plans on Brexit as contradictory and confusing, saying it is absurd for ministers to pretend the UK can replicate the benefits of the EU’s single market and customs union while accepting none of the rules.

But he ends with a plea to Labour to “be on the high ground of progressive politics, explaining why membership of the European Union is right as a matter of principle, for profound political as well as economic reasons”.

Blair argues that Labour’s current ambiguity on the issue is a tactical error as it means the party cannot fully attack Theresa May’s government for neglecting issues such as the NHS and policing amid an all-consuming focus on Brexit.

The article criticises the “cake and eat it” phrases of people such as John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who has said that although the UK must leave the single market it can remain in “a single market”.

“Far better to fight for the right for the country to rethink, demand that we know the full details of the new relationship before we quit the old one, go to the high ground on opposing Brexit and go after the Tories for their failures to tackle the country’s real challenges,” Blair writes.

“At every PMQs nail each myth of the Brexit campaign, say why the Tory divisions are weakening our country – something only credible if we are opposed to Brexit, not advocating a different Brexit– and challenge the whole farce head-on of a prime minister leading our nation in a direction which even today she can’t bring herself to say she would vote for.

“If we do leave Europe, the governing mind will have been that of the Tory right. But if Labour continues to go along with Brexit and insists on leaving the single market, the handmaiden of Brexit will have been the timidity of Labour.”

Blair has been a persistent critic of both Brexit and Labour’s decision to not oppose it, prompting questions as to whether interventions by such a divisive figure are helpful in promoting the remain argument.

In an interview with the Guardian last month, Blair acknowledged that some people would “refuse, literally refuse” to listen to his arguments because of who he is, but argued that not many other public figures were stepping forward.

Along with Thursday’s article, his personal thinktank, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, has published a 32-page report titled What We Now Know, chronicling what has been learned about Brexit since the referendum.

In the article, Blair criticises the Brexit positions of some shadow ministers but spends longer detailing what he calls the contradictory and confusing positions of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and David Davis.

He writes: “Think of it in this way. Suppose the English FA wants to arrange a football match with France. There are many things to negotiate about: the venue, the timing, the price of the tickets etc. But suppose the FA then said to their French counterparts, we also want to negotiate whether we have 15 players on our team not 11. The French would say sorry but you have the wrong address, talk to the rugby federation. Yet this seems to be the negotiating position of the government.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Peter Walker Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 4th January 2018 00.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010