David Cameron and Tony Blair faced identical tasks earlier this week. Both wished to force a reluctant group of back-sliders to adopt a more robust and pragmatic position.
Cameron wanted Europe to toughen up against Putin. Blair wanted Labour to toughen up against Cameron.
Blair’s opportunity was the 20th anniversary of his enthronement as Labour’s leader. Oddly enough the chief beneficiary of that leadership – the Labour party itself – mysteriously forgot to give its messianic champion a chance to reflect on his methods. Instead, he offered his blueprint for further Labour victories to the think-tank, Progress.
Blair likes to write in the early morning, in long-hand, seated at a window. This speech, clearly the product of many such sessions, was full of optimism, cajolery, hard-headed common sense and double-edged warnings. And it kicked off with an inflammatory sound-bite aimed at the radical left.
‘Old ideas dressed in new clothes are still old ideas and are visibly so when undressed by reality.’
That struck home. The first respondent to the Guardian’s online coverage said, ‘why cant [sic] he just fuck off?’ This was followed by a thousand similar outbursts. ‘Lying hound’, ‘the best PM the Tories ever had’, ‘bring back Blair in chains’, and so on.
Blair restricted himself to generalities and stressed the primacy of ‘individual empowerment’ over ‘collective control’. But he was specific about education. He scolded Labour’s self-harmers for complaining that the Tories’ free school programme is an extension of the academy system pioneered by Lord Adonis and himself. ‘That should be a matter for rejoicing not anguish.’ He urged his party to take on vested interests that oppose reform, ‘otherwise we are the conservatives.’
Conservatives. The insult Blair most loves to use against the unions. Not least because it’s the insult they most loved to use against him. He even likened Ed’s leftish coalition to the clapped out Tories that he faced during his decade as PM. ‘Shriekers at the gates’, he called them rather than a movement with ‘the character of a governing party.’
As for Labour moving towards the centre-right, he said: ‘Relax. It happens,’ with an audible smirk. In full sun-lounger mode, he offered this political dichotomy.
‘In the end, parties can please themselves or please the people.’
The casual language disguises the deep sincerity of this utterance. Few can have failed to hear an echo of the dire warning he issued to Old Labour in the mid-1990s. ‘Parties that do not change, die.’
Where Blair was heart-felt, Cameron was focus-grouped. The words he addressed to the nation, and to Europe, about the MH370 disaster were saturated with cliches. He didn’t quite say he was ‘rolling up his sleeves’ to ‘do the right thing’ for the ‘hard-working families’ who’d lost their lives ‘because we’re all in this together.’ But his slogan-writers used the triplicate form so often that the speech dissolved into series of impotent drum-rolls.
‘Alongside our sympathy there is also anger. Anger that this could happen. Anger that a conflict that could have been stopped by Moscow has been fomented by Moscow. Anger that some in the west …’ etc.
He said he wanted to ‘turn a moment of outrage into a moment of action.’ He might have done better to turn it moment of cordial and personal rhetoric rather than this production-line invective. Mind you, he didn’t quite take the wooden spoon which goes to the author of this response.
‘What’s been done so far has been proved to be inadequate.’ (Ed Miliband)