As he was standing on the stage in Sedgefield, the key question for the assorted media hacks before him was “Where’s Ed?”, or questions on that theme.
Yet Tony Blair gave a masterly speech, ranging over huge macro issues from national identity to Britain’s place in the world and the sort of cultural values that we want to stand for.
It’s not overly surprising that a former PM should be able to deliver a good speech – they didn’t achieve office by being inarticulate and uncommunicative. However, I was puzzled as to why the speech was being made in the first place.
Blair’s key message was a warning to voters that, if you put David Cameron back in Number 10, then you will definitely get a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
I was momentarily struck by the thought that Blair’s script had been swapped for something out of CCHQ, but on he ploughed. His other messages that the UK should shape the EU and that we risk trade and jobs from even contemplating a Brexit have been made before; most notably by Blair himself in 2014 and 2012.
He can hardly be faulted for consistency. Or can he?
For, as we heard, there was a new ingredient regarding the prospect of the British people making a decision on EU membership in a referendum: “Should the Conservatives be re-elected on May 7”, intoned Blair, “it is one which we will be called upon to make”.
I know that many in the Labour camp will have been nodding along sagely to this. The prospect of uncertainty, halted investment and then the years-long headache of potentially having to unpick ourselves from the fabric of the EU is not a pleasing one, at least to those of us who believe in the very great good that a functioning single market can bring.
However, I think on this the former Prime Minister has got it wrong. On the doorstep and in the hearts of the British people, what sounds throughout when you talk about the EU isn’t so much a deep desire to leave but a deep concern that it lacks legitimacy.
In part this is because no one younger than their mid-50s has ever consented to the relationship. For the entirety of my generation and most of that before me the EU has been something ‘done to’ the electorate rather than something ‘done with’ them.
What people want is to have their say. When you look at the polling numbers on holding a referendum it’s rather clearer cut than when you look at whether people would vote Yes/No in one. Polling conducted for British Future by YouGov in September 2014 found that only 23 per cent of those polled were opposed to such a poll being held.
Interestingly a majority of Labour supporters also backed holding a referendum. Unsurprisingly 79 per cent of Conservatives and 91 per cent of Ukippers also supported “holding a referendum on Britain’s relationship with Europe over the next few years.”
Which brings me back to why today’s intervention from Blair will be such a boon to Conservative activists. Time and again on the doorstep when activists meet those who’ve decided to turn to the Kippers they offer the line; “but you’ll only get a referendum with the Tories”.
Sometimes that’s accepted and a vote is won. At other times though the depth of feeling is such that the voter simply doesn’t believe what they are being told. Well, now Conservative activists have a second arrow they can throw – “Even Tony Blair, no fool he, believes that the Conservatives will deliver an EU referendum.”
Before people decry this as deluded thinking,pause to consider why Blair was wheeled out at all. Despite a contested record in office he remains one the UK’s few political giants – which was why we were all glued to our screens this morning.
After all, in the tightest of races any ally will do…