Left Watch

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Blair backs Cameron on the deficit, spending, public service reform and VAT - and poses huge problems for Labour's next leader

By Paul Goodman

BLAIR TONY serious Tony Blair's memoirs, "A Journey", will today be probed and pored over by people looking for stories.  Blair has trailed them by giving an interview to this morning's Guardian, which has also provided a summary of the book's main contents, itself described earlier today by Jonathan.

However, there's a story that the paper (for whatever reason) hasn't picked up and projected.  But Robert Hutton of Bloomberg has done so - namely, Blair's support for Cameron and the Coalition on deficit reduction.

Hutton quotes Blair as follows -

“If governments don’t tackle deficits, the bill is footed by taxpayers, who fear that big deficits mean big taxes, both of which reduce confidence, investment and purchasing power...

Hutton himself writes -

"In his memoir "A Journey", published by Random House today, Blair said Britain “elected a Tory version of New Labour” in May with a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. He said Cameron's policies are close to his own vision of using market forces to improve public services, ideas rejected by Brown, who led the Labour Party to defeat in May after forcing Blair out in 2007..."

- and -

"Brown “bought completely the Keynesian ‘state is back in fashion’ thesis,” Blair wrote. Support crumbled in the election because “we had become the old Labour Party".  Blair’s suggested alternative, including an increase in value-added tax, is along the lines adopted by the coalition."

Much of the interest in "A Journey" today will be in what it has to say about the past - in particular, about Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown, and the war in Iraq.

Most of the rest of it will be in what he has to say, albeit obliquely, about the present Labour leadership contest: in the Guardian interview, he warns against attacking "Tory cutters and Lib Dem collaborators".  He also says about the deficit that "you've got to have a way out of it and it's got to be credible… If you simply say no you aren't going to succeed".  This can be read as a view similar to Alistair Darling's (and dissimilar, please note, to that of Ed Balls).

But a longer-term significance of Blair's memoirs will lie in the effect they have on the political future - and especially on the battle for the next election.  The quotes that Hutton has unearthed place Blair's view closer to Cameron's and Clegg's than Darling's - which, surely, is where it really lies.  As Danny Finkelstein pointed out in the Times (£) recently, Blair -

"opposed higher tax rates, wanted to privatise large parts of public service provision, opposed most government intervention in the economy, and was a liberal interventionist in foreign policy"

- while David Miliband, touted as Blair's successor (and tacitly endorsed by the man himself) -

"...wants a High Pay Commission, a living wage and employee representatives to sit on company pay boards. He believes that the bank levy should be doubled, that charitable status for private schools should be removed and that a mansion tax should be introduced. There would also be an “active industrial policy”, “private sector reform” and closing “the class gap in education”.

The point isn't the spurious claim that "Blair's a Conservative" (let alone a Tory).  It should go without saying that he isn't.  He's either, according to one's view, an extremely right-wing social democrat or an extremely left-wing Christian Democrat.

It will be claimed that Blair's a busted flush with the voters.  I'm not so sure.  He reached parts of the electorate that other Labour politicians (such as Brown) simply couldn't reach.  He remains the only Labour leader to date who's won three elections - and in a row, too.  A slice of voters who voted Labour in 2005 voted Conservative in 2010, and could make the difference in a close election.

Expect CCHQ, in due course, to seize Blair's remarks and hurl them at whichever Miliband leads Labour - especially Blair's apparent support for a VAT rise.  Ominously for the Opposition, Blair refers to setting out his views after a three year pause, which suggests that he may do so again in the future.  He's an infinitely smaller political figure that Margaret Thatcher.  But his legacy and views could bestride Labour - as she did the Conservatives for many years post-1990, "like a colossus; and we petty men. Walk under his huge legs, and peep about. To find ourselves dishonourable graves".