Recalling his intervention with the royal family, Blair said, “You’ve just got to make sure that you try and keep the country together and united and, look, it was an extraordinary time because I’d literally just come into office.” He related those days as we sat in his Mayfair office — the same one used by John Adams when he was the ambassador here — and sipped coffee out of white porcelain cups.
“If you think back to when she became queen, roughly when I was born,” he said of Elizabeth, “there was still an age of deference around. We’re past the age of deference. So what she understood was, the monarchy could only stay the monarchy if it could justify itself on its own terms. That process of modernization of the monarchy was very important. But you have to do it without losing that mystique and mystery.”
He says he has never seen Michael Sheen’s take on him in “The Queen,” and he has not watched “The Crown,” its twin jewel in Peter Morgan’s prodigious effort to put a shine back on Queen Elizabeth after the Diana debacle.
(He has seen the famous Hugh Grant dance from “Love Actually,” and said he did it himself, not as well, after winning the Olympics bid in 2005 and almost did it again after the Irish peace deal was struck.)
Did Blair ever think he would see a time when the royal family would keep calm and carry on as the queen’s grandson moved toward marrying an American TV actress who is divorced and half black?
“Yeah, I mean, it’s great,” he said.
And for Blair, all deference disappeared when the British had their suspicions confirmed that the selling of the Iraq invasion was based on sexed-up evidence, and that their prime minister’s role as W.’s enabler and simultaneous translator had helped pave the path to endless war and ISIS.
Blair has plunged back into the fray as a leading advocate for overturning Brexit. His office — along with David Geffen’s yacht, to which Blair is no stranger — is ground zero for the global elite. Although he bristled at that term. “On this elite thing, the progressives are just going to stand up for themselves and push back against” that hooey, he said, using a stronger word. “The idea that the handful of right-wing media proprietors here are some ordinary Joes from the street, I mean, it’s ridiculous. There are elites on both sides.”
While we’re on the subject of right-wing media proprietors, I broached the subject of his former benefactor and buddy Rupert Murdoch, who cut him off when he came to believe that Blair had been involved with his then-wife, Wendi. (Blair denies it.) Will they ever be friends again?
“I don’t think I’ll comment on that one,” Blair said with a tight smile.
I asked if his quixotic push against Brexit was an expiation for his push for the Iraq war — even though he maintains that, as he looks at Syria, he still feels it was right to go into Iraq.
“No is the answer to that,” he replied.
I’ve always thought Blair was one of a handful of people who could have stopped the Iraq war, and I was fierce in my criticisms of him.
In London, though, I stopped short of doing what some here, including a bartender at a hip London restaurant where Blair was dining, have done: a citizen’s arrest for crimes against peace. (A website called arrestblair.org — with a current pot of over 10,000 pounds — offers a reward for Blair’s capture, or attempted capture.)
Even though he stiffened, I asked why he helped W. switch 9/11 villains from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein.
“What I would say is that our anxiety, particularly straight after 9/11, was that you would end up in a situation where these unstable dictatorships, you know, which combined with terrorism to cause mass destruction,” he said. “One of the things I’ve learned about this issue is that there’s no point in me trying to relitigate it with people.”
I asked about speculation that he had bonded with W. over their strong Christian faith. “Not really,” he replied.
He’s Teflon Tony no more. I wondered if he thought he could ever get beyond it, the way W. has become more popular in contrast to President Trump.
“I don’t know is the truthful answer,” he said.
Some Britains even blame Blair for Brexit, arguing that the emotional release he encouraged in the stiff-upper-lip country after Diana’s death uncorked a reservoir of decidedly un-British visceral feeling.
“Drawing a line from Princess Diana to Brexit is a bit of a stretch, I would say,” he said curtly.
Blair’s office is decorated with paintings and a map of the Middle East, where he served as special envoy for the “quartet” of the U.S., the U.N., the E.U. and Russia. W.’s book of paintings sits on a shelf.
Blair knows Jared Kushner — he has not met Trump — so I asked what he thought of the son-in-law’s epic task of making Middle East peace.
“The fact that someone’s not got a long institutional experience of these issues isn’t necessarily a disadvantage,” Blair said.
Certainly, the Iraq war proved that a consortium combining decades of experience is no guarantee of wisdom.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change may sound like a front for the restoration of the global elite. But Blair said he has struggled to understand the forces that led to Brexit and Donald Trump: “Making sense of it is very hard. I feel like a student of politics again.” Odd, he added, since “I spent most of my political life in a state of reasonable certainty.”
He said he still talks to his old Third Way pal, Bill Clinton. “Spending time in his company is well spent because he’s got an amazing political mind,” Blair said. And he’s still in touch with W.
The central question, he said, is whether politicians can change the status quo enough to steer people through this period when they feel they’ve lost control.
“I don’t think you can adopt a politics that essentially says that those grievances are unjustified or irrelevant,” he explained, “or say, ‘I’m just going to focus on something else because that’s really more important than your grievance.’”
He could have been describing What Happened with Hillary’s campaign, when she and President Barack Obama sniffed at the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders.
The anger that buoyed Trump, he said, “is not unjustified. You can’t sit there and essentially blame the people.”
That approach can lead to the rise of strongmen, or what he called “the Putinist model.” “The strongman form of government says, ‘I’m just going to bust through the systems not delivering for you and I’m going to deliver,’” he said. “It’s got an appeal.” He concluded: “I think the threat to what I would call traditional democracy is bigger than we think.”
The weekend I talked to him, he told me he was publishing a report on how to deal with the immigration issue, which he said “agonized” progressives because they “hate the tinges of racism and sometimes the overt racism that comes with anti-immigrant feeling.”
His report represented a radical pivot. He now believes that Brexit can never be undone “unless we have an immigration policy that makes sense of the fact that people do worry about pressure on services and wages that can come from large accumulations of migrant labor and frankly, anxieties people have about whether there’s a cultural divide from migrants, particularly if they come from a majority of Muslim countries.
“I think the only way of changing the Brexit situation is to say, ‘We’ve listened, we’ve heard, we’re going to act on these problems, but we’re going to act in a way that is sensible, that is consistent with our values.’”
His U-turn showed up as a banner headline in The Sunday Times: “Tony Blair Gets Tough on Migrants 13 Years After Opening Doors.” The paper outlined Blair’s “explosive” backtrack: Calling on Theresa May’s government to force European Union migrants coming to Britain to register or face being barred from renting a home, opening a bank account or claiming benefits; recommending curbing unemployed migrants’ access to free health care and permitting businesses and universities to discriminate in favor of British citizens.
Upon hearing the news, British tabloids, not to mention Cockney taxi drivers, went nuts.
“Migrant U-Turn Fury,” shrieked The Sun. “Blair Bitch Project.”
“Butt Out Blair — You Ruined This Country,” blared The Daily Star’s headline.
The Daily Express lead editorial, headlined “Tony Blair Is the Reason That We Are Leaving the EU,” huffed about the jaw-dropping shift: “If he had a shred of decency or integrity we would never hear from him on this subject again.” It reminded readers that Blair’s consigliere, Lord Peter Mandelson, said in 2013 that the Labour Party had “sent out search parties for immigrants” in what the paper called “a cynical move” to expand its voting base and be in a position to label Tories racist if they objected.
Farage called Blair’s new stance “beyond the pale.” When I mentioned to Blair that Farage is surrounded at the E.U., where he is a member of Parliament, by people who loathe him, the former prime minister shot back, “He rejoices in that fact.”
I flew to Brussels to track down Farage, who managed to turn Britain upside down after 20 years of not being taken seriously.
Although he thinks Blair was once a “genius” politician, Farage said, “The thing about Blair is that, in terms of British public opinion, he’s a busted flush.” He added that May is “a very, very cold fish.”
The 53-year-old hell-raiser was in his office in a modern Parliament building, the skunk at the garden party. All day long, E.U. members try to hammer out the terms of the blistering divorce with Britain. And here is the renegade who led the lemmings off the cliff, holed up, wearing a natty dark suit, wreathed in Camel smoke despite the no-smoking rules, sipping Welsh whisky and trashing his colleagues.
He told Herman Van Rompuy, who was then president of the E.U., in front of the whole European Parliament that he had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.”
Next to his desk Farage has installed a black coffin emblazoned with a golden emblem of the euro. “I bought it on eBay for 180 euros,” he said gleefully, “which for a properly made coffin didn’t seem bad.” He has in a frame the infamous picture of him and Trump in front of a gold elevator at Trump Tower, gloating, thumbs up, the week of Trump’s upset victory.
Farage loves Trump. He admits that padding around the lobby of the Trump International Hotel in Washington with a large glass of red wine is one of his favorite nocturnal activities.
When Trump tweeted in November that Farage should be named ambassador to the U.S., it caused an uproar at 10 Downing Street.
Farage mused that it would have been interesting to do something constructive, rather than stay on his usual destructive path, but the former banker said that those in the British establishment “look upon me as a member of the lower orders.”
Although The Guardian reported that Farage had been named “a person of interest” in the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation, Farage shrugged it off, saying, “I’ve got no Russian connections.”
Despite his stunning success with Brexit, Farage is now a man without a party. He resigned as leader of UKIP, which has basically sputtered out.
“What are political parties for?” he said, philosophically. “Are they there for their own sake? If you’re in politics because you want to be something, then parties are essential. If you’re in politics because you want to do something, parties are vehicles.”
His friend Trump, he said, took over his party. “It’s a complete hijack and I love it,” he laughed, hoarsely. He called Trump the “extreme alpha male, the silverback gorilla.”
But even those who like Trump, he said, wonder “why he’s picking a battle on so many fronts simultaneously” — especially with his own party. You know you’re in trouble when Nigel Farage thinks you’re picking too many battles.
Reviled by many at home in London and at work in Brussels, Farage is spending the autumn giving speeches all over Europe.
He recently got a standing ovation at a rally for a far-right, anti-immigration party in Berlin, where he said Angela Merkel’s decision to maintain open borders during the refugee crisis was the “worst decision by any leader in modern political history.” He was invited by his fellow Parliament member Beatrix von Storch, a leading member of the far-right Alternative for Germany Party and a granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister.
“The hard left has made my life a complete misery over the last four or five years,” Farage said. “I’ve had to live with 24/7 security. I’ve had threats, physical assaults against me, my family. And this is all from people who are in organizations that profess themselves to be about love and hope and optimism, all right?”
Farage, who once dismissed France under the stewardship of François Hollande as “a pipsqueak,” said that with Emmanuel Macron, France would become even more of a pipsqueak. He loved Melania’s hurricane stilettos, is excited about Kate Middleton’s pregnancy — “I think it’s absolutely bloomin’ marvelous!” — and thinks that Prince Harry should not marry Meghan Markle. “I don’t think Harry’s ready to marry anyone yet,” he said.
He called Gary Cohn wrong to have publicly chastised Trump’s response to Charlottesville and denied that Javanka’s presence in the Oval was a detriment to the president, saying “he needs family around him.”
Not only can the sun set on the British Empire. It can set on Nigel Farage. At dusk, we walked across the street to a favorite haunt, the Beer Factory, where he had a red wine.
He waved his hand at the crowded square, shrugging off the very idea of Brussels. “Belgium’s not a nation,” he said matter-of-factly. “Brit-bashing here in Brussels is about to become a registered E.U. sport, as every single one of them lines up to say we are wrong, we are deluded, we are stupid, we made a deplorable decision and they won’t budge a millimeter in the negotiations and that we’re going to be taught a jolly good lesson.”
Farage is the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof. The victory is just staying on it, I guess, as long as he can.
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