Having debated former British prime minister Tony Blair literally hundreds of times, when I was leader of the opposition, I just can’t break the old habit of analysing any important statement that he makes. This may seem sad to some, but even when I was up against him in heated arguments I found him intriguing — and in person, he is always engaging.
Few political leaders in our lifetimes have had such an ability to stand an argument on its head, or to convey contradictory messages with seemingly complete sincerity. So when he turned up on Radio 4 last Sunday, I just had to listen, as a Blair connoisseur, to how he would approach a general election with a Labour leader he must regard as an incompetent extremist not fit to fill his shoes, although he doesn’t quite put it like that. The answer was vintage Blair. While he would vote Labour himself, other people should quiz their local candidates to see who has “an open mind” on leaving the European Union (EU) and know that before they vote. How people vote is up to them, he said generously, but this issue mattered more than party allegiance in this particular election. It would never occur to most politicians that they could announce they will vote for their party but that other voters should consider supporting its rivals.
I have never stopped admiring the way Blair, while still in the Church of England, let it be known he was quietly a Catholic and carried the Quran on his travels. He can be in one party while indicating support for the others and still keep a straight face. Yet, there is always a seductive side to what this undoubted maestro comes out with, and it is important to understand the implications of what he is saying. If millions of people were to take his advice, the consequences for Britain would be very serious. Instead of a Conservative majority, there would be a hung parliament, opening up a long and bitter struggle to reverse the referendum result, and probably with Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, holding the balance of power.
The uncertainty for the business world caused by leaving the EU would have nothing on the chaotic scene that would follow such an election outcome, with taxes, defence and the whole future of the UK up for grabs. The most important part of the case he made also has to be confronted, because it is similar to the arguments of the Liberal Democrats, and we will hear it very often over the next six weeks. This is that a big Conservative victory will “steamroller” the country into a “hard Brexit”. Since some people who voted Remain might fall for this, it is crucial for two answers to it to be explained. The first is that a bigger majority would give Theresa May more freedom of manoeuvre to reach a deal with the EU and win ratification for it, but that is not necessarily a “harder” Brexit. In practice, it would almost certainly mean she could be tougher on some matters and more open to compromise on some others.
The letter the Prime Minister sent with her invocation of Article 50 last month was well received around the EU because it opened the way to a deal while respecting her red lines. The reason the pound has gained value since the election announcement is because an objective assessment of the consequences suggests the Government will be in a stronger position to make a reasonable deal. It doesn’t have to be a “harder” one. The second answer is that what is meant by “avoiding a hard Brexit” is that we somehow contrive to stay in the single market and customs union even after leaving the EU. Tony Blair was explicit in his interview that this would be his objective. From the master of political triangulation comes a new third way: We could still be in the EU even when we’re not. The trouble with this is that it is not realistic or negotiable if we are to have control of our own borders. The EU would not wear it and we cannot expect them to do so. This is where I, as someone who voted Remain and believe we will still need considerable numbers of EU citizens to work in Britain, differ from Blair, the Liberals, and anyone else who thinks Britons don’t need to control who comes into the United Kingdom. They might still choose to accept whatever level of migration is good for Britain’s economy.
But Britain has to be able to choose for itself, and not being able to control it at all is clearly unacceptable to the British people. Hoping to stay in the single market despite leaving the EU is therefore not practical or realistic. So if voters really set about preventing an increased Conservative majority to stop a so-called hard Brexit, they would in reality be preventing British Prime Minister Theresa May from making necessary deals, and expecting her to argue for something that is simply not available. That would not be in the interests of Britain, or of a successful outcome to the negotiations.
A final and striking aspect of the interview with Blair was his lack of recognition that his own government largely created the circumstances in which people voted to leave the EU. He was fair enough to acknowledge that May is “a reasonable person with many reasonable policies” and Britons should say the same about him. He certainly made his party dramatically more electable than it is today. But his opening up of Britain to much larger scale immigration from Europe and elsewhere ultimately produced the backlash that tipped the scales in last year’s referendum.
Furthermore, he and former British prime minister Gordon Brown refused to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, sending the message that however much power was given to Brussels, the voters would not be consulted. Had such a vote been held, Britain would have torpedoed that treaty. But Britons would not then have been voting in 2016 to leave the EU altogether. Brexit was born in the New Labour years when public concern over rising immigration or loss of sovereignty was deemed not to matter. Now it is a Conservative prime minister who is dealing with the consequences of that, and who needs a strong mandate to do so. Nothing that was said last week, even by the great artist of political positioning, should be seen as a convincing argument against that.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
William Hague is a former British foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party.