Former prime minister returns to the Westminster fray. Why?
‘I just wanted to remember what it was like’
Tony Blair returned to parliament on Tuesday, for the first time in years. He looks thinner than he did, the hair has receded further, and his complexion speaks of too many hours basking in artificial light, in planes, airport lounges and the function rooms of large hotels. It’s not a good look, but the “aw, shucks” smile is still there, and the arms wave about as much as they ever did, as if he has so much on his mind that the hands are semaphoring what he hasn’t got time to enunciate.
He does have a kind word for everyone, even the people he loathes. We learned he has sent Gordon Brown a Christmas card. Maybe it reads “Job was tougher than you thought, eh, sucker!” but more likely “All best wishes, Tony and Cherie.” It’s baffling, or perhaps instructive, that a man so eager to be liked ended up being hated by so many.
He was speaking at a press gallery lunch. Why? “I just wanted to remember what it was like,” he said, ironically I suppose. Unlike his two prime ministerial successors, who rarely do press conferences, he used to hold one a month, on top of PMQs.
“At three minutes to 12 Keith Hill [his PPS] would put his head round the door and say: ‘Prime minister, a grateful nation awaits you.’ And you would go in and get your backside royally kicked.”
(He’s always had a penchant for stevedore’s language. “Yesterday I got 20 bog standard questions from the Daily Mail about ‘why are you such a bastard, and when are you going to stop?’ Today they’re going to get 20 different ways of saying ‘bugger off.'”)
He has also kept his facility with a good phrase. As prime minister, he said: “You start as the most popular and the least capable; you finish as the most capable but the least popular.”
Later he was asked about Ukip, which he clearly detests, partly because all this talk of us leaving the EU is, in his view, “dangerous and intensely damaging”, partly because he is fed up with people carping about immigrants, who were for the most part enterprising and brought fresh energy and initiative. “We should not make them the scapegoats for our problems,” he said. But slightly spoiled the effect by saying much the same about bankers.
As for Nigel Farage’s party: “They are never far from being nasty and never close to being sensible.”
He has not lost either his gift for ducking questions. He really is the Bradley Wiggins of the tour d’evasion. Should we pull out of Afghanistan? “It is very important that we stabilise Afghanistan and leave the country in the best possible state …” Eh? And what about all those people being shipped off to be tortured while he was PM? He didn’t know anything about torture, but we should remember that “we were facing a very severe threat”, reminiscent of Billy Bunter’s: “I didn’t steal your cake, and in any case it was horrible.”
Someone asked aggressively why he hadn’t taken a peerage. Was it because he’d have had to declare his interests or was he planning a return to frontline politics? “Those are the only two options?” he asked, and so didn’t answer that either.