Blair is back. The former Prime Minister dipped his toe back into British electoral politics today with a speech in his former constituency of Sedgefield. Mr Blair’s topic of choice? The EU, and a strong attack on the Conservatives and the “chaos” that would ensue should they deliver a referendum on EU membership. While the BBC has reported that Labour are banking on Mr Blair’s “lingering stardust” rubbing off on their campaign, polling suggests there is little of it left to go around.
Tony Blair has won three general elections.
Tony Blair recorded some of the highest personal ratings a serving Prime Minister has had.
Tony Blair is now more unpopular than the EU and Gordon Brown.
The ComRes Favourability Index from September last year showed Tony Blair at the bottom of the pile in terms of favourability. Just 15%, that’s around just one in seven people, have a favourable opinion of the former Prime Minister, while six in ten (59%) hold an unfavourable opinion.
It will be particularly galling for Mr Blair that he’s even more unpopular than his immediate successor and erstwhile rival for Number 10, Gordon Brown. But he is also particularly polarising, attracting opinions (both positive and negative) more so than other leaders.
The key finding in today’s context is that more Britons are positive about the EU than Mr Blair himself. How much more then, can Tony Blair add on the issue?
One can’t doubt the interest and media following that Mr Blair attracts. He leads the news bulletins, calling into question Labour’s message grid. Today was, seemingly, supposed to be about the NHS for Labour. They launched a poster about GP waiting times under the Conservatives and Andy Burnham hit the airwaves this morning. But how much of that will get through when on the same day they had Tony Blair making his first intervention of GE2015 on Europe? The NHS is voters’ top priority, the EU falls far down the list, and yet which will be covered more today?
The BBC’s most read news stories, and Twitter trends reveal Tony Blair in the top 10 but nothing on Labour’s message on GPs. It’s not clear what the intended outcome of Mr Blair’s intervention is. He may still hold some sway with private sector and businesses for whom his message of uncertainty and chaos will resonate. This would chime with Ed Miliband’s own messages on the dangers of a referendum and attempt to sure up some support among business. But his public appearance is likely to raise more negative questions than provide positive answers.
What was Tony Blair’s aim today? Simply describing the chaos around a potential EU referendum underplays the potency of the EU as an issue. The referendum itself is not a central plank of Labour’s campaign. The toxicity of the EU comes around immigration, comes around the strength of the economy and comes around issues of sovereignty. Not just the referendum.
Perhaps it is the safest territory for Messrs Blair and Miliband to share a view? Or perhaps we’re seeing Mr Blair harking back to one of Tony Blair’s favourite past times: baiting the Conservatives. He knows the Tories want to avoid having to talk about membership of the EU as it tends to tear the party apart – particularly between backbenchers and the leadership.
But the post-Easter re-emergence of Tony Blair on the campaign trail may only open up questions within Labour about the direction of the party, whether Mr Blair supports his successor while voters are reminded of what Ed Miliband is not.