Blair urges opponents of Brexit to rise up and fight to change minds
London — Tony Blair urged opponents of Brexit to "rise up" and fight to change the British people’s minds about leaving the EU in a speech that aimed to show UK Prime Minister Theresa May that she won’t get everything her own way.
"People voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit," the former Labour prime minister said in London on Friday. "As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so."
Blair, who ran the country from 1997 to 2007, explicitly set himself against May’s Conservative government, accusing it of being a "government for Brexit, of Brexit and dominated by Brexit". As the most formidable election-winner in Labour’s history, his intervention isn’t to be dismissed, but opponents are likely to argue that his campaigning strength is diminished by his support for the Iraq war.
The response from the Conservative government was swift. "I urge the British people to rise up and turn off the TV next time Tony Blair comes along with his condescending campaign," Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, one of the figureheads for the "Leave" campaign, told Sky News in Bonn, where he is attending a G20 meeting, adding, "This is the guy who dragooned the UK into the Iraq war on a completely false prospectus with consequences which foreign ministers here are still trying to deal with."
May plans to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin exit talks next month, with a view to completing them within two years. She is steering the UK towards a so-called hard Brexit, saying she wants to withdraw not just from the 28-nation EU, but also its single market and customs union, both of which can accommodate countries that aren’t in the bloc. This has riled opponents of Brexit, who argue that it ignores the wishes of the 48% of voters who opted for to remain in last year’s referendum.
Driving the bus
Blair said May and her cabinet are in thrall to those in her party who want complete separation from the EU. "They’re not driving this bus," he said of ministers. "They’re being driven. We will trigger Article 50 not because we know our destination, but because the politics of not doing so would alienate those driving the bus. Those driving this always wanted a hard Brexit — indeed even the term ‘hard Brexit’ requires amendment; the policy is now ‘Brexit at any cost’."
With the Labour party now deeply divided and unsure of how to respond to the Brexit vote, the government has had a relatively easy ride from Brexit opponents in the UK parliament.
"The debilitation of the Labour party is the facilitator of Brexit," Blair said. Last week, May won a series of votes on the legislation to allow her to begin departure talks. Blair’s aim is to rally those who want to stay inside the EU and get them to work together to change the terms of the debate.
"Our challenge is to relentlessly expose the actual cost; to show how this decision was based on imperfect knowledge, which will now become informed knowledge," Blair said. "I don’t know if we can succeed, but I do know we will suffer a rancorous verdict from future generations if we do not try."
Blair acknowledged there is little room in the public debate for talk of staying inside the EU. He said he wanted to re-frame the questions before it was too late. "The ideologues know that they have to get Brexit first, then tell us this is the only future which works," he said. "We need to strengthen the hand of the members of parliament who are with us and let those who are against know they have serious opposition to ‘Brexit at any cost’."
He explicitly rejected May’s argument that her opponents are "citizens of nowhere". "How hideously, in this debate, is the mantle of patriotism abused," Blair said. "We do not argue for Britain in Europe because we are citizens of nowhere. We argue for it precisely because we are proud citizens of our country who believe that in the 21st century we should maintain our partnership with the biggest political union and largest commercial market right on our doorstep."
Blair agreed with May that support for Brexit is driven by immigration, but argued that leaving the EU won’t deal with the immigration that concerns people. "For many people, the core of the immigration question — and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue — is immigration from non-European countries," he said. Nevertheless, the debate has changed in just a few months "to the primacy of one consideration — namely controlling immigration from the EU — without any real discussion as to why, and when, Brexit doesn’t affect the immigration people most care about".
Blair also questioned May’s claim that she wants Britain to be a bridge to the US. "How to begin this worthy undertaking?" he asked. "To get out of Europe, thus leaving us with no locus on the terrain where this bridge must be constructed."
He said the break-up of the UK "is now back on the table, but this time with a context much more credible for the independence case". And he warned that May’s administration will be unable to focus on anything beyond EU matters. "This government has bandwidth for only one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams — or nightmares."