Blair’s Brexit Gamble

Tony Blair today made one of his most explicit interventions into British politics since leaving political office in 2007. In an article entitled Brexit – What We Now Know written for his Institute for Global Change, Blair sets out the logical inconsistencies and contradictions of the Conservative’s approach to Brexit and, perhaps more importantly, his frustration at Labour’s response.

It seems though that Blair’s time away from front-line politics has rather blunted his political instincts. While he asserts that Labour could ‘annihilate’ the Conservatives if the leadership unambiguously opposed Brexit, the evidence does not really support that viewpoint. The Labour Party certainly could – as Blair rightly points out – make more of the Conservative’s ‘fundamental division’ over the future of the country if it was unequivocally anti-Brexit, but only at the expense of exposing its own divisions. It is worth remembering that a significant minority (30%) of Labour voters voted to leave the EU and there is no evidence that those that did vote remain are defecting to the Liberal Democrats, who increasingly resemble a single-issue party on Brexit. In fact, it was exactly the latter demographic of voters that contributed to Labour’s surprisingly strong performance at the last election.

Of course – although it might seem strange to say in the context of Tony Blair – it is not all about Labour winning elections. Although he does appeal to electoral pragmatism, it is clear that what lies at the heart of Blair’s argument is a fundamental rejection of the very concept of Brexit. But h犀利士
ere his uncharacteristic ideological fervour has led to some significant oversights in his reasoning.

Firstly, his central argument that Labour should call for a second referendum on the actual terms of Brexit relies on the assumption that Article 50 is unilaterally reversible, something that is debatable at best. If it isn’t revocable, Britain could end up out of the EU with no deal. Secondly, even if Article 50 is reversible, the very prospect of a second referendum will change the EU’s approach to negotiations, essentially incentivising them to put a bad deal on the table to encourage the British electorate to reject the offer. Superficially this might appear to suit Blair, but putting a bad deal on the table greatly raises the possibility that Britain will vote for, and be saddled with, that bad deal. Asking the British public to vote again on Brexit and expecting it to go the ‘right’ way the second time around is a monumental gamble, especially given that the process itself raises the stakes.

In this context, Labour’s current, more nuanced approach is a valid one and it is surprising that Blair cannot see this. If the Labour Party were to advocate a second referendum and actively campaign to stay in the EU, they would need to be very confident of victory. Otherwise, the country runs the risk of leaving the EU with a worse deal and an even more divided and disengaged electorate.

Ranelagh has produced intelligence briefings on Brexit, which you can find here.