NYT - Two decades after Tony Blair swept to power in a landslide victory to become prime minister of Britain, his brand of centrist, pro-European politics seems a distant memory in a divided country that has now voted to leave the European Union.
But on the anniversary of that victory, Mr. Blair tried to bolster the sagging center ground of British politics, while predicting that voters might think again about the economically damaging hard break with the European Union that he believes is looming.
Britons will vote on June 8 in a general election called by Prime Minister Theresa May, a Conservative, who wants a larger parliamentary majority behind her to negotiate the withdrawal from the European Union required by a referendum last year.
Mr. Blair, in an hourlong conversation with the international news media, urged Europe’s left not to reject globalization, while warning that Mrs. May would probably lead Britain to a sharp break with the European Union, or a "hard Brexit”. Yet he also argued that once the shape of any departure deal becomes clear, Britons may have second thoughts.
"I personally think that when people see the details, they will hesitate,” he said, referring to the complexity of any deal Mrs. May can negotiate.
Many would dispute that assertion. And thanks in part to his active role in pursuing the Iraq war, Mr. Blair is a diminished figure in Britain these days, particularly within his Labour Party, which has swung to the left.
But his skill in winning elections is undisputed. Capturing the political center ground, Mr. Blair was elected prime minister in May 1997, becoming, at 43, the youngest premier since Lord Liverpool in 1812, ending 18 years of Conservative government and sparking the optimistic "Cool Britannia” era.
Mr. Blair also later secured two more victories. Yet the Conservatives are now firmly back in power, and the Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, its most left-wing leader in decades, who trails Mrs. May badly in opinion polls.
Citing polls in Britain suggesting that Mrs. May will win in June, Mr. Blair urged Britons to vote for candidates who want to keep options open on Brexit, provide an opposition and deny Mrs. May a "blank check.”
Despite the aftershocks of the financial crisis, Mr. Blair believes that centrists can find answers to globalization. He described Emmanuel Macron, a contender for the presidency of France, as a force for change in Europe.
The key, Mr. Blair said, is "accepting globalization as a fact, accepting its benefits but preparing people for its consequences,” rather than embracing protectionism or isolationism.
Speaking in his London office on Friday, Mr. Blair said he would "never give up” on the idea of remaining in the European Union, though he conceded that others think is this now impossible.
One theory about the coming elections is that, if Mrs. May wins a significant parliamentary majority, she will gain the political space to compromise, and retain close ties to the European Union.
But Mr. Blair thinks she is headed in the opposite direction, appealing to supporters of the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, a right-wing, anti-European Union party, and to Labour voters who opted for leave the union.
"They’re collapsing the UKIP vote into them, and they’re going after the Leave vote from Labour,” he said, sipping coffee (which he gave up while prime minister). "Now that doesn’t strike me as a strategy designed to give you an easier ride on Brexit.”
As for the timing of the election, he said it was "the optimal moment for Theresa May to say, ‘Give me the strong mandate’ before people actually know what this negotiation means.”
When they realize the implications, Mr. Blair said, attitudes may shift. "All I say to you is it was 52 percent to 48 percent,” he said, referring to the referendum vote to leave the European Union, "and you only need one in 15 of those who voted Leave to change their minds.”
Though he plans to vote for Labour, Mr. Blair has pointedly declined to endorse Mr. Corbyn for prime minister, and Mr. Blair’s prescription for progressive politics sounds like a veiled criticism of the current Labour leader’s brand of socialism.
"Anything that looks like a form of conservatism of the left is never going to work, because the progressive forces only win when they understand the future and show how they can make it work for people,” Mr. Blair said.
"The chief characteristic of the world is accelerating change, and for the left it has got to be constantly modernizing,” he argued when asked about the failures of center-left parties in continental Europe.
As for the United States, Mr. Blair said he was somewhat reassured by President Trump’s first 100 days in office. "It is in everyone’s interest that this is a presidency that is a force for stability and not instability,” he said. "I think you can see in some of the positions adopted, there is somewhat of a shift from the candidate to the president.”
As to his own future, he insisted that he was "not going back to front-line politics,” but was creating an institute to promote a "renewed center ground.”
Looking back to the sunny day when he moved into the prime minister’s office — a "new dawn” as he called it then — Mr. Blair said that "lots of things have changed,” before adding: "But the single thing that’s changed the most is change itself, and that’s accelerated.”