They arrived like The Expendables, strolling out of the still-lucrative wreckage of their careers to do one last job. Tony Blair unleashed a barrage of sense that left the BBC’s Andrew Marr groping blindly for the nation’s outrage. He had it one second ago; it must be here somewhere. Hang on, here it is: this centre ground you want to rebuild, Mr Blair: wasn’t it you who destroyed it? This liberal consensus you mourn – didn’t you bury it?
Never mind all that, said Tony’s shiny eyes, we don’t have time. Neoliberalism, globalisation, how left is the centre-left: these are rather abstruse conversations, set against the pressing business of a national disaster. He crescendoed, in an accent that has gone from his 90s everyman to a zeitgeisty, unplaceable Mr Mid-Atlantic, with three sharp blows about Brexit: the gains are illusory; the pain will be substantial; and while it’s occupying all the government’s time, as it must, given its gargantuan complication, nobody is doing any actual governing.
It was Blair’s encore – the bit in the concert where, having sat through an age of new material, you remember what an effortless hit-maker he once was. Simple, inarguable, succinct: however much one wrestles to understand the motives of the leave voter, however close one gets to comprehending left-Brexit, eco-Brexit, left-behind-Brexit, poke-the-elites-in-the-eye-Brexit, one always arrives back at this dog’s Brexit.
Sprinkle in some Michael Heseltine if you want your demonic flavours more intense
At their very best, their most honest and lucid – which, for the purposes of this week’s argument, was David Davis addressing a committee of MPs – those in charge will admit to not having a clue. No clue how much a deal will cost, less clue how much no deal will cost, no clue what tariffs will hit British farming, less clue what will happen to the open skies agreement.
At their worst, their most pompous and bombastic – which for the purposes of every week’s argument is Boris Johnson, addressing anyone – those in charge pledge to replace decades of carefully wrought deals and laws with hot air and boosterisms dreamed up in a bar. It is all pain, no gain, and leaves us with leadership so incompetent that crises bubble up at a rolling boil. Would it be preferable to hear it from the leader of the opposition rather than a man with 10 million quid in the bank and a toxic legacy? Sure. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
John Major, meanwhile, gave both barrels to the readers of the Mail on Sunday. In an article as fervent as this former prime minister’s sober facade has ever allowed, he forecast – no, promised – disaster if the “ultra-Brexiteers” weren’t reigned in. Again the man and his words left us on the horns of a dilemma: do we want to throw ourselves behind a soft Tory who gave us the cones hotline, and who never looked happier than on the day the electorate freed him from politics? Not especially. But he’s not wrong.
Completing the lineup, with borderline comical ultra-menace, is George Osborne, the group’s Dolph Lundgren, the man you want with you only because you wouldn’t want to see him against you. He steps forward not to return to the political frontline, but with an attack plan from a tangent, as the editor of the London Evening Standard.
To make a full list of his various work commitments and the salaries attached sounds rather petty and resentful – let it suffice to say that he probably won’t be a very hands-on editor. His staff will be unlikely to find in him a Daily Mail Paul Dacre figure, reading every page proof and making the floor shake as he thunders from one desk to another venting his displeasure.
I realise this is a niche view, but I see the real insult of Osborne’s career choice as not to his constituents – to have voted for him more than once, they must take a masochistic pleasure in how low on his to-do list they are – but to the Evening Standard and its readers.
Editing a newspaper isn’t the same as consulting for a private equity firm – shadowy, made-up work you can do in an hour a week by surveying a suite of options and choosing the most dastardly. And the Standard isn’t the same as the Daily Mail, a by-numbers worldview promulgator that could be produced by an algorithm. It takes a lot of legwork to care about cycling infrastructure while discovering what hot Londoners feel about brunch.
It is plain, however, that Osborne did not take this job in order to get closer to the capital’s cultural bloodstream. He has taken it as a fightback for the metropolitan elite. Ever since last June, the news has been marching to the tabloids’ pounding drumbeat that smart, smug Londoners have been calling the shots for long enough and it’s time for them to start listening to the anger of the real Britain.
In the language of post-referendum “authenticity”, real voters howl while metropolitans chatter; real voters have righteous anger while the fake ones moan and whine. The response, in media terms, has so far been rather timid: we’re happy to chew the fat of the Brexit plan – though “plan” is of course a strong word – but there has been no full-throated, clamorous, insistent, quotidian defence of the 48%, this scorned elite that is actually far too sizeable and diverse to warrant the term.
For the experts, for the entrepreneurs, for the young, for the internationalists, for the optimists, for the people who have concerns about the future but don’t think returning to the 1950s is the best way to address them, there has been nobody consistently speaking up. And this is quite a lacuna, given what we have in the place of that voice: a news agenda effectively set by Nigel Farage.
For my money, Osborne is the worst of all these messengers by some margin. But if the message is what it looks like – that we cannot live in a headline culture that is all immigrant scroungers, benefit cheats, statins and Princess Diana – I have to agree with it.
It was plainly a coordinated strike. In years to come we’ll find out which restaurant Blair, Osborne and Major met in to cook it all up, what they had for pudding, who else was there. Sprinkle in a bit of Michael Heseltine if you want your demonic flavours more intense.
But if you are stunned to find yourself on the same side as these people, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or you are: it is mere testament to how bizarre and urgent the battle of Brexit has become.