Chilcot remains the test of Labour’s new unity

by Kevin Meagher

The ripples in Labour’s millpond have stilled. An eerie, becalmed peace is left. Nothing succeeds like success and Ed Miliband has reached the summer recess with reason to feel quiet satisfaction. His frontbench team has become more effective, the government benches less so. His party is united, the coalition fractious and sclerotic.

The prime minister will have his work cut out ahead of the party conference season, repairing relations with his backbenchers, keeping the Lib Dems sweet and removing Boris Johnson’s tanks from his lawn as a seemingly smooth-running Olympics emboldens the London Mayor in his bid to one day replace Cameron.

Ed Miliband, in contrast, can kick back and plough through his summer reading list uninterrupted. Labour’s opinion poll lead remains, if not spectacular, then the next best thing: consistent. Miliband has developed themes around responsibility and fairness which continue to resonate. He has also been lucky in his opponents too. His ‘predators’ speech at last year’s Labour conference, much maligned at the time, is vindicated with every new detail that emerges from London’s square mile, with allegations of HSBC laundering drugs money the latest seamy instalment.

But Miliband has started to make his own luck too. Tales of chaotic organisation and accusations of gauche appearances in the media and at prime minister’s questions are no longer made. The Labour machine, replete with a new top team of senior directors, is beginning to purr once again. Candidates for November’s police commissioner elections – the next big electoral test – are already in place while the Conservatives struggle to fill the roles.

Meanwhile, prolonged recession is hardening the public mood against ministers’ hoary claim that they are “dealing with the mess Labour left”. Their excuses have rapidly declining purchase as the economy flatlines. The writing is on the wall when even the IMF starts inching away from George Osborne’s deficit-masochism.

Voters’ acceptance of belt-tightening was only ever going to be short-term. Each tale of corporate and banking excess tests the patience of a frustrated public which contrasts its own sacrifices with our mangy corporate elite’s lack of restraint.

The result? All the big problems in British politics are shovelled against David Cameron’s door this summer. A one-time (self-styled) ‘heir to Blair’ he lacks the older man’s panache and luck. This is painfully evident with Blair now returning to British public life in a series of carefully choreographed interviews and appearances.

His re-entry into Labour’s orbit has been especially tentative. His presence at the party’s gala sports dinner recently and the announcement that he will take on a role advising Ed Miliband on the Olympics’ legacy generated a frisson of controversy on Labour’s left, but it was largely synthetic. And predictable. Those who dislike Tony Blair will always now dislike him, whatever he says or does.

His new advisory role is free-form and, in reality, little more than an organising concept for either man. For Ed Miliband the value of a returning Blair is to show that the Labour tribe is reuniting, cynically, perhaps, given the growing sense that David Cameron seems set on emulating Ted Heath as a one-term Tory prime minister; but coming together nonetheless. Talent from across the party now supplicates itself to a leader many did not want but who all now realise is going to lead Labour into the 2015 general election, come what may.

For Tony Blair the value in hitching his wagon to Miliband is – perverse as it sounds for the great showman – to build his profile so that when a big international job comes along he is in a decent place to pursue it. He is clearly achieving little in his envoy’s role in the Middle East while his corporate entanglements are a positive hindrance to his future plans. A role as wise elder statesman to a new Labour prime minister is not a bad perch to sit on as he bides his time.

So a slightly awkward but nonetheless determined desire to start over is the prevailing mood across all wings of the party. However the real test of this rapprochement comes next summer with the publication of Sir John Chilcot’s report into the Iraq war.

This is the last – and seemingly most thorough – attempt to divine the circumstances that led us to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There seems a strong chance Blair and Labour ministers will receive harsh censure. Earlier inquiries conducted by Lords Hutton and Butler merely provided glancing blows. Chief casualty of Hutton’s inquiry was, memorably, the BBC; while all a patrician mandarin like Robin Butler could muster was a banal and predictable criticism of Tony Blair’s sofa government modus operandi.

Chilcot is different. This inquiry represents a potential dagger thrust to Tony Blair’s reputation.

Originally set to report at the end of this year, Sir John wrote to David Cameron earlier this month setting out a revised timescale that allows for the declassification of secret documents and an opportunity for Chilcot to write to those he intends to name in his report. This process means the final report won’t be published until next summer.

Is this forensic-sounding approach a harbinger of trouble ahead for Tony Blair? Any finding of wilful complicity with the Americans – or even naivety – will validate the age-old criticisms against him. Can Labour’s new modus vivendi survive such a verdict? Will a damaged Blair retain the cache that Ed Miliband recognises he clearly still has?


Iraq remains the faultline for many on Labour’s soft left – Ed Miliband’s key constituency. It symbolises a critical loss of trust in the last Labour government and continues to fuel a carte blanche anti-Blairism. Any validation of the rhetorical charge that “Tony Blair is a war criminal” will be pounced upon by his critics within and outside the party, testing this new-found unity. The effects will be destabilising precisely at a time when the party will be hoping to shift gears ahead of the next general election.

The realpolitik for Ed Miliband this summer is that Tony Blair’s endorsement offers him credibility and party unity. The two year mope by Blairite ultras is at an end.

Whether this mood survives Chilcot next summer is potentially a very different matter.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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5 Responses to “Chilcot remains the test of Labour’s new unity”

  1. swatantra says:

    Not quite. Ed the Unready has still to find that X Factor key to winning any election: a relationship with the electorate. It took W Hague about 20 years to develop gravitas and it could be that it takes Ed M the same.
    As for Blair, I get the feeling he is morphing into Sir Alec Douglas Home every day, and it could be that Tony swallows his pride and comes back in a Labour Admin as Foreign Sec. But it would be a lot better for all of us if he were kicked upstairs to the UN and serve as Gen Sec there; it is I think Europes turn to be Gen Sec.

  2. anon says:

    “But it would be a lot better for all of us if he were kicked upstairs to the UN and serve as Gen Sec there”

    Tony Blair as UN top face – you’re taking the piss…surely

  3. Mike Homfray says:

    Blair won’t be back in any role. He also won’t be selected as the UN Gen Sec because of Iraq.

  4. Amber Star says:

    There’s no chance for Blair in the UN. He ignored them twice; once over Kosovo which ultimately worked out okay, once over Iraq which didn’t turn out quite so well. There’s nothing here for him; he should push off back to the US. They still quite like him over there.

  5. uglyfatbloke says:

    Blair is the route to a Labour defeat in 2015, not just because of what he is himself, but because of how he is seen and because of his pals….Brown, Darling, Beckett, Johnson, Reid, Mandelson etc.
    It’s not just the wars, the incompetence, the centralisation and authoritarianism. It’s the arrogance and that business of stealing money on their expenses and then getting away with it. The expenses enquiry moved the goalposts to allow guilty MPs (over 400 of them, at least 220 of whom are still in the Commons) to avoid the court cases and jail sentences that the rest of us would have faced if we had embezzled from our employers.
    If Ed does n’t get Blair out of the picture he’s going to be tainted by him. It does nt help that he’ll have Balls at his side to remind us all of the Brown government.

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