It is the problem faced by every retiring U.S. president, especially those like Bill Clinton who are still relatively fresh-faced at the end of their term: what on earth do you do for an encore?
And as British politics has become dramatically more presidential over the past quarter of a century, it’s becoming a British challenge, too. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair bestrode their nation for periods in excess of two U.S. presidential terms. When they finally fell, their respective parties, Conservative and Labour, confronted a vacuum of charisma and personality that left them becalmed in opposition for years.
Meanwhile the fallen great ones drummed their fingers and tapped their feet on the sidelines, wrote mighty memoirs, made many well-paid speeches, set up important-sounding foundations. But nothing they essayed could fully drown out the keening of their lust to return to high office.
Now Tony Blair’s hunger to get back behind the steering wheel has been made public, getting splashed across the British press–though as his biographer, John Rentoul, points out, the basis for the story is thin.
All it amounts to is that an unnamed source “close to” the former prime minister who was quoted this week in an article as saying that Blair wants “to re-engage in U.K. politics.” “He has things to say,” the source goes on, “and he thinks it’s the right time.” Oh yes, and he has hired a new pr officer. But Rentouls is in no doubt that the story is true. And true or false, it was sufficient to trigger a deluge of abuse.
Norman Tebbit, Margaret Thatcher’s venomous old hard-right ally, took advantage of the story to look back in anger at the Blair years. His piece for the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph was headlined “War, debt, drunkenness, a broken nation: the real legacy of Tony Blair.”
“Blair’s wars,” he wrote, “the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and the consequential war in Afghanistan, have left thousands of our servicemen dead or injured.”
If the Conservatives had shown the slightest interest in opposing either of those wars, Tebbit’s case would be stronger, but fairness was never part of the repertory of the politician once dubbed “a semi-house-trained polecat.” “Blair’s licensing law reforms,” he went on, referring to the liberalization of hours in which alcoholic drinks can be sold, “have brought back Hogarth’s Gin Lane to a city center near you”–an amazing assertion when it was his closest political ally, Margaret Thatcher, who abolished the restrictive rules governing pub opening hours.
Old enemies like Tebbit seized the rumor of a longed-for return to cudgel Blair with whatever implement came to hand. It was due warning of what would likely await him should he try it for real.
Unlike the U.S., there is nothing in Britain’s (unwritten) constitution to prevent former top leaders returning to power. But there are plenty of other impediments.
Although Blair is the only Labour leader in the party’s history to have won three general elections on the trot, he is very unpopular with large sections of it. “There is no way he could come back as leader,” John Rentoul told The Daily Beast. “Nearly half the Labour party hates his guts in a passionate and unreasoning way and thinks he’s a war criminal.”
There is nothing in the party rules to prevent him making the attempt. The time-honored way would be for him to be created a Life Peer by the party’s leader, giving him lifetime rights to sit in Westminster’s Upper House, from where he could be appointed to the shadow cabinet or indeed, if and when Labour returned to power, to the government. As Lord Blair, he might even storm the heights of power and become party leader. That would be anachronistic but not unprecedented: the last time it happened was when the Earl of Home succeeded Harold Macmillan in 1963, though even in the Conservative Party of that bygone age it created a rumpus.
But Blair has said publicly that he does not want a peerage. Alternatively he could stand for election as an MP again, or for election to the new, all-elected House of Lords, which the government is considering introducing in a major constitutional reform. The former, for a man of Blair’s stature, would be considered downright weird; the latter less so, but he has gone on the record as an opponent of an elected upper chamber.
So what’s a power-hungry grandee to do? The only other constitutional route that suggests itself would be for him to divorce Cherie, then marry Princess Anne after inducing her to divorce Sir Timothy Laurence, her present husband; then to engineer the death of Prince Charles so that in the fullness of time, with the death of the present queen, he would become Queen Anne II’s consort. It sounds like something that Shakespeare’s Richard III might attempt, but even for a man of Blair’s ambition it might be a bridge too far.
All this idle speculation presumes that the story that triggered it, about Blair’s wish to “re-engage,” is actually true. And John Rentoul, who says he still meets the subject of his book from time to time, insists that it is.
Since resigning as prime minister in 2008, Blair has become a best-selling author, an increasingly successful businessman, and the head of a religious foundation to which he is intensely committed. But Rentoul is in no doubt that his lust for high office is undimmed. “None of those things is enough,” he confirms. “He wasn’t put on the planet to do those things: he was put on the planet to lead, to do great things on the world stage.
“As a result he may have some delusions [about what is possible]. There is something deluded about all politicians who get to the top, because getting there involves taking such great risks.” They may find it impossible not to believe that taking more such risks can yield the same sort of brilliant results as it did before.Yet Rentoul is sure that in his heart Blair knows he’s not coming back, at least not on a British stage. “He wants to be a big international player. [In 2009] he genuinely believed he had a chance to become President of Europe–but he can’t see another opportunity coming up. Anything to do with the United Nations is tricky because of Iraq.”
His biggest public role since quitting as prime minister has been as envoy to the Middle East. “He’s serious and committed about it,” says Rentoul. “He’s thrown himself into it, he spends one week of every month in Jerusalem. It’s his main focus.” That commitment has yet to yield any spectacular results–but then it is the toughest job in the world. “In that job he’s done a lot of unglamorous work that never gets reported,” Rentoul says, “to do with tourism, road blocks, sewage farms.” And the remembered perfume of power has never smelled so sweet.