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An audience with Tony Blair, world superstatesman

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Tony Blair’s recent intervention in the climate change debate was, for many, a long overdue and welcome return for this popular ex-Prime Minister. TCW’s Political Editor met him to discuss whether he plans a return to front-line politics.

TONY Blair is a busy man; his political acumen very much in demand both here in the UK and further afield, particularly in the Third World. Via the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, he dispenses wise counsel to fledgling democracies and can be relied on to utilise his black book of political, economic and media contacts to good effect. The Institute exists, as its website trumpets, ‘to help political leaders build open, inclusive and prosperous societies in an increasingly interconnected world’.Wise and meaningful words.

We meet at his London HQ, and there are two surprises. First, he meets me in reception – normally one would expect a PA to do this. Second, he is dressed casually in jeans, suede moccasins (no socks), and an embroidered sixties-style Nehru jacket.

He registers my surprise and holds his hands up apologetically. ‘I know, I know, you expected a suit and tie, and normally you would be correct, but I have an engagement later on which demands informal attire.’

One cannot help but warm to him: he has lost none of the charm that propelled him to an astonishing three election victories, something that his successors can simply dream of. We take the lift to his top-floor office. He is all smiles and small talk, mixed with some topical political gossip. In his company one is easily seduced, and his huge and continued popularity is understandable.

He looks younger than his 70 years, with an enviable complexion – his hair, which has been much commented on, is thick and vigorous and styled fashionably long. To what does he attribute his desirable appearance – does he follow a particular diet regimen?

‘I wish I had the time! (He laughs) No, I pretty much eat the same basic foods that I ate at university. I start the day with a wheatgrass smoothie mixed with chai and flax seeds followed up with a bowl of mixed berries, goji, acai and boysenberries. I then drink two cups of Chinese Iron Goddess Oolong tea.’

I want to talk politics, and I start by asking him whether his recent pronouncements on Net Zero marked a non-too subtle return to the political fray.

‘Absolutely not! (He laughs loudly) I think I would have to be stark staring bonkers to want to get into all of that again. It seems like a lifetime ago and quite frankly I have more important calls on my time.

‘The whole idea of elections, meetings, greetings, endless TV and radio appearances fills me with horror. The fact that I am now able to decide who I work for and, more importantly, when, is a great comfort. Don’t get me wrong though, I am still terrifically interested in the fortunes of the UK, and I follow politics closely. I talk regularly with Keir and I still use Mandy [Lord Mandelson] as a sounding board.

‘I often think that I am rather like Edward VIII . . .’ He looks wistfully out of the window and in a soft, almost feminine voice, recites from memory: ‘I shall always follow the fortunes of the British Race and Empire with profound interest, and if at any time in the future I can be found of service to His Majesty in a private station I shall not fail.’

He quickly adds: ‘Although race and empire are now rather contentious points.’

It is a moving moment, and one cannot help but wonder how much more this titan of politics could have done for Great Britain if only he had been given more time. Was his loss of office one of the greatest calamities to befall this country?

Quickly, though, he is back in the room and talking excitedly about Net Zero and the climate emergency that the whole world finds itself grappling with.

‘Look, you cannot ignore what is happening all around us and what we need to do to arrest this catastrophe. Future generations and history books will judge us harshly for our current failures. We quite literally have the future of humanity in our hands and I for one want to stand up and be counted in the battle.

‘While technology and science will play a part, I truly believe that we can improve things generally by leveraging our financial muscle to save the planet. But real meaningful change can only come by working closely with trusted partners such as the WEF and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

‘Basically, the developed world’s emissions are going down, but the developing world’s are going up. These countries have got to grow, so how do you finance the transition? Secondly, how do you accelerate the technology? This is where UK plc can play to its strengths. We have such a fantastically stable and well-structured economy that we can afford to lead the world.’

Should society and individuals try to reduce their carbon footprints?

‘Absolutely, no question about it. People think that the small efforts that they make will have no significance, but they are wrong. As the Chinese proverb states so eloquently, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step”.’

Our time is up and he shows me to the door, his sincerity and desire to do well by his country self-evident and extremely appealing. I cannot help feeling that it is to Great Britain’s disadvantage that this immensely capable and deeply principled individual no longer leads the Labour Party.

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Alexander McKibbin
Alexander McKibbin
Alexander McKibbin is a retired media executive who worked across domestic and international media.

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