Tony Blair has been dropping hints for months now that he would return to front-line politics, but it was never entirely clear what he had in mind.
May brought news that he had recruited big-hitting PR agent Rachel Grant to be his communications adviser, with a source close to the partnership saying: “He wants to re-engage in the UK. He has things to say and he thinks it’s the right time.” Eyebrows crested over Westminster’s rooftops. Late last month, as reported by Professional Manager, Blair admitted in a high-profile interview to accompany his guest-editing role for the London Evening Standard that he would happily give the prime minister post another shot. Eyebrows began to tickle the undersides of clouds.
Now eyebrows are officially stratospheric with news – revealed in the Guardian – that Blair has been appointed to the inner circle of Labour leader Ed Miliband, where he will act as special adviser in tandem with Left-winger John Cruddas. Answering Cruddas’s recent suggestion that “reforming the band” would provide the party leadership with seasoned voices from across its political spectrum, the dual-adviser nucleus will drive Labour’s impending policy review. In that strategic set-to, the party will attempt to redefine what it stands for in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, and put in place mechanisms designed to help Labour outmanoeuvre the already-struggling Coalition.
From Miliband’s point of view, the move is a masterstroke. Underestimated in the early stages of his tenure as Labour leader, he has since stolen significant marches on the Coalition – first by focusing attention on the full horrors of phone hacking and the links between media groups and politicians; secondly by pressing for an independent and judge-led inquiry into persistent wrongdoing at banking organisations based in the UK. The Leveson Inquiry, therefore, was as much a creature of Miliband’s pressure as it was of David Cameron’s attempt to get a grip on the phone-hacking scandal; and Miliband has conducted his push for a similar forum on banking with his eyes open, fully aware that his party stands as much to lose as anyone by opening its diaries and ledgers to official scrutiny. But as Professional Manager reported yesterday, Tory attempts to stigmatise Labour over its relationship with the banks while in power have blown up spectacularly in the Coalition’s face.
So clearly, Miliband is no strategic slouch – and his work with Cruddas and Blair will go some way to drawing different wings and lobbies of Labour together at a time when unity is a crucial value to uphold. Yes, the party is facing a divided government – a government, in fact, divided into two parties, each with their own divisions over governmental processes. Yes, the Coalition’s largest party is resorting to ever-more desperate stabs at gamesmanship, such as plants in Prime Minister’s Questions that have spawned PR catastrophes like yesterday’s shrill performance by Newton Abbot’s fearsome (in all the wrong ways) Anne Marie Morris.
But lapsing into complacency at this point would benefit Labour not one iota. Michael Heseltine was always fond of saying that the Conservative party is “nothing if not a broad church” – and it is a sentiment that Miliband has certainly echoed in the structure of Labour’s advisory team. He has also neutralised the potential for situations in which Blair might feel compelled to carp from the sidelines: a tactic that Margaret Thatcher employed to devastating effect against John Major’s leadership of the Tories.
Fusing factions is always a difficult management challenge – but if Miliband can please all of the people in his party for the stretch of time between now and 2015, he may yet demonstrate that he has a knack for the endgame as well as the means of getting there.
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