Tony Blair: London Mayor?

By Tom Wein

Tony Blair has announced his intention to "re-engage" with British politics. It is an event that has attracted much attention. With varying levels of horror and titillation, pundits of right and left have pored over his statements, and sought to divine his ambitions. They have variously predicted that he wants to be Prime Minister, or run the IMF, or the UN, or the EU. None of these seem especially plausible. Nor does the idea that he could be a member of the Shadow Cabinet; how, without overshadowing his own boss? Yet one prominent job has not been suggested: I believe Tony Blair may run for London Mayor.

Why would he take such a job? Well, if the top jobs are not available at present, it offers a prominence, and a chance to leave a legacy other than Iraq, that few positions can equal. More than that, it is a job that would suit him. His skills of persuasion and an impeccable contact book would be valuable, in a job that offers limited executive power and progress must be achieved through coalitions and chivvying. Meanwhile, London’s political culture matches his own. He has a unique brand of populism: socially liberal but tough on crime; relaxed on immigration but credible on terrorism; committed to social progress but relaxed about globalisation  and wealth. All that seems remarkably close to the creed of Londonism described by The Economist: “Since the creation of the capital’s mayoralty in 2000, a distinct ideology has congealed around that office. Some of it is recognisably right-wing: it embraces high finance, even during the banker-bashing furore. Some of it is conventionally left-wing: Londonism calls for state spending on infrastructure and a liberal line on immigration. Essentially, it is a commitment to relentless growth and openness”. What is more, it is a view that in the good years was prevalent across Britain; post- financial  crisis, the capital remains a last bastion of that politics. Other parts of the country would not have him, but the Big Smoke might.

It is worth noting too that he has a longstanding keenness on mayors. He set up the London Mayoralty under the Local Government 2000 Act, and in a 1998 IPPR pamphlet, he called for “clear and strong” leadership from local government.

Indeed, he already seems to be preparing the way. He was appointed as the Labour Party’s advisor on the Olympic Legacy, a role which will allow him to comment on East London’s regeneration and help associate him with London’s great success. Meanwhile, he chose the London Evening Standard, rather than a national daily, as the paper to guest-edit and give lengthy interviews. A skilled media operator like Tony Blair would not have made such a choice without due thought. In that interview, indeed, he was keen to emphasise  his links to London; the interviewer (Sarah Sands, editor of the Evening Standard), reported:  “He travels for more than half the year, but he and his family are still rooted in London”.

One rather large obstacle remains. Would the London Labour Party have him? After Ken Livingstone’s second defeat, the party certainly needs a new candidate. A Blair-led mayoral campaign would not make the same unforced errors that Ken was prone to. And his undoubted electoral skill would help deliver a victory to a party fed up of losing on what they view as home turf. It might also help revitalise  a campaigning machine that party thinkers say needs considerable improvement. Yet London is a city with a large Muslim population, and a bastion of the anti-Iraq War movement; it was the first place to elect an MP for the left-wing and anti-war Respect Party. His campaign would surely be dogged with controversy. He remains unpopular in the party: in a June poll of 855 readers of Labour List, a website for activists, 60 per cent said they would not take Blair back.

However, the London Labour machine can be deeply insular; electability is certainly not the only consideration. Personalities matter. The present incumbent, after Ken Livingstone’s defeat, is Oona King. Yet she has already been defeated by Ken, and may not be inclined to run again. Moreover, she owes her career to Tony Blair, and her politics largely align with his. She might be persuaded to support his candidacy. The story is similar with John Cruddas, whose voice would carry considerable weight behind the scenes. Less persuadable may be a cohort of smart, photogenic young London MPs: Sadiq Khan, Stella Creasy, and David Lammy have all shown campaigning spirit and political desire. For the moment, only the first is in the Shadow Cabinet, though that will likely change.

If he is willing to take the risk and expend the flesh-pressing effort, Tony Blair could defeat any of those candidates, and likely win the mayoralty. And if he does, who would he face? With Boris Johnson tempted by life in central government, we might see an intriguing Olympics-tinged race: Blair vs Coe for London Mayor.


Tom Wein is the founder and editor of False Moustache magazine, and a jobbing political analyst.


17 August 2012