It is tempting simply to laugh at Tony Blair’s latest intervention in the Brexit debate – or else weep with rage. He now wants to close the door that he opened in 2004, or at least make it harder to pass through it. For it was in that year that Britain became one of only three EU countries to waive restrictions on entry from workers from ten new member states. The then Labour Government predicted that only 13,000 people would move to Britain from Poland and the other eastern European countries concerned. Over a million came, and the mass voter backlash against EU immigration began. The Prime Minister under whom all this happened was Tony Blair.
None the less, there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents, and Blair’s conversion to tough migration controls is welcome – if they would work. And it is here that, not for the first time with the former Prime Minister, spin trumps substance. The centrepiece of his new proposals is an emergency brake on EU migration if numbers require it. However, we have been here before. Such a brake was precisely what David Cameron failed to gain during his renegotiation. He gained one on access to benefits only, which was to be gradual, limited to seven years – and remain in the controlling hands of the EU Commission. If Cameron couldn’t gain more from the EU less than two years ago, why should Blair be able to do so now?
But the former Prime Minister’s plans have less to do with practicality than politics, and a specific political aim: stopping Brexit. And it is in this context that, strangely, Brexiteers should thank him. For if leaving the EU is to be halted, three conditions must be met. First, the British people must turn against Brexit. At present, more still favour leaving than staying. Second, Parliament must do so too. But it voted overwhelmingly that Article 50 be moved, and is now set to back the EU Withdrawal Bill (that it will doubtless be amended makes its passing no less unlikely). Finally, the EU Commission and the EU27 must be willing, with the UK, to find a way round the provisions of Article 50, which there is no known way of doing. It was Blair himself who presided over the drawing up of the Article 50 process!
The trap in which he writhes is of his own making. There is a lesson here for the Andrew Adonises and A.C.Graylings and Gina Millers and Jolyon Maughams and all those still determined to defy the largest popular vote in British electoral history. It is that while campaigning for Britain to rejoin the EU is perfectly practicable – who are Brexiteers to claim that putting a case on Europe is somehow illicit? – trying to stop Britain from leaving in the first place is not. There is simply no credible pathway to halting Brexit. The best course that Remainers can take at the next election is to campaign for Britain to re-enter the EU – which could well mean accepting the Euro and Schengen. Meanwhile, Blair flaps and claws in his agitation at the stable door. But the horse runs free over the fields.