In a fiery speech delivered in London aimed to show U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May that she won’t get everything her own way, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Tony Blair urged opponents of Brexit to “rise up” and fight to change the British people’s minds about leaving the European Union.
In his first major political intervention since the vote last June, Blair issued a rallying cry to opponents of Brexit, saying there was little clarity over what the vote meant when the referendum took place and that the government was set on "Brexit at any cost".
"The people voted without knowledge of the terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so," he said quoted by Reuters in a speech to pro-European group Open Britain. Blair spoke at Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London, the same place where, in January 2013, former Prime Minister David Cameron announced his plan to call a referendum on EU membership, unwittingly setting Britain on course to leave.
“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 expose relentlessly 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.”
"This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair; but the time to rise up in defense of what we believe."
Blair acknowledged there is little room in the public debate for talk of staying inside the EU. He said he wanted to reframe 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.’
The former PM also questioned May’s claim that she wants Britain to be a bridge to the U.S. “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 U.K. “is now back on the table, but this time with a context much more credible for the independence case.”
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,” he said. “It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams -- or nightmares.”
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.”
As Bloomberg adds, 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.” Blair has criticized May and other members of the government, who had backed "remain" in the referendum campaign, for pledging to take Britain out of the single market for political reasons even after they had offered a staunch defense of its merits. "They're not driving this bus. They're being driven," he said.
It is unknown if Blair's remarks will have an impact: his reputation among the British public remains tarnished by the Iraq war, an issue which resurfaced last year when a long-awaited inquiry was critical of his role in the decision in join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Still, he remains a loud voice in British politics and has sought to make targeted interventions in recent years: first to warn voters against electing Labour hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn and later to try and dissuade voters from backing Brexit. Neither intervention was successful.
While he retains the support of Labour Party moderates, he is reviled by many members who feel he betrayed the party's socialist roots, and his old party has shifted far away from the pro-business center ground he once championed.
Theresa May has vowed to trigger Article 50 and start the process of leaving the European Union next month, and has said she envisions a clean break from the bloc, including leaving the single market. She has also warned politicians against disrupting the process.
Blair said that among the risks of Brexit, the issue of the break-up of the UK was now "back on the table" and the circumstances for nationalists were now "much more credible" than they were three years ago.