LONDON — Look away, Labour left: Tony Blair is in fashion again.
The former prime minister’s rehabilitation back into a party that once struggled to speak his name seemed complete on Tuesday as he shared a stage with current Labour leader Keir Starmer.
In a cosy chat at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel just across the river from the Houses of Parliament, Blair and Starmer ended the day by congratulating each other on what a good job each had done.
A major row between Starmer and some parts of his party over social security got only a cursory mention — although Starmer did use the opportunity to hit back at his internal critics.
“We keep saying, collectively, as a party, we’ve got to make tough decisions,” Starmer told Blair, who was interviewing him to cap a day’s conference for his Institute for Global Change think tank.
“And in the abstract everyone says, ‘That’s right Keir.’ But then we make tough decisions — and we’ve been stuck in one for the last few days — and they say ‘We don’t like that. Can’t we make another one?’”
Starmer was referring to the backlash from many of his own MPs after he declared at the weekend that Labour would maintain a Conservative cap on welfare payments for people with more than two children.
Defending that decision, Starmer told Blair that beleaguered former Tory prime minister Liz Truss had “proved the thesis that if you make unfunded commitments, then the economy is damaged and working people pay the price.”
“I will not let the next Labour government get anywhere near the equivalent of what Liz Truss did,” he declared.
A recurring theme in the pair’s discussion — which marked the first time a Labour leader has openly shared a platform with Blair since Labour was booted from government in 2010 — was the uphill climb a government with Starmer at the helm will face if it wins the next election.
Starmer — whose five “missions” for government echo Blair’s own five promises to voters from his first term — said it was “impossible to list all the challenges” his administration might face.
That didn’t stop him listing them anyway, with the Labour leader saying a cost of living crisis, climate change, an aging society, artificial intelligence, “the mess of the last 13 years,” a “botched” Brexit deal, a “mortgage bombshell,” infrastructure “starved of investment,” underfunded public services and “stagnant” productivity all needed sorting.
Blair told Starmer: “What you’re going to inherit next year is grim.”
Blair remains deeply divisive in his own party. He won three elections and ended more than a decade of Tory rule. But he took Britain into the Iraq war in 2002, and embraced the use of the private sector in running public services.
Blair has in recent years been a vocal critic of Starmer’s left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, and an ardent opponent of Brexit.
But, in a sign of the times, he heaped fulsome praise on Starmer Tuesday.
“You’ve done an amazing job,” Blair gushed. “You’ve taken the Labour Party in 2019, [when] it was on the brink of extinction, frankly … to the brink of government.”