21 Jul 2014

Why Gaza has always been tricky for Middle East envoy Tony Blair

He may be the Middle East envoy, working pro bono for the “quartet” of powerful international states and organisations to promote peace, but at this moment of huge crisis in Gaza, Tony Blair flew back to London overnight to address his pet think tank, the Blairite group Progress.

The event was at Church House, Westminster, 20 years to the day since the Blair campaign, at the very same venue, cheered his election as Labour party leader in July 1994.

As Mr Blair entered the building I asked him what he was doing in London. “Shouldn’t you be in Gaza?” I suggested.  No reply.

So I pursued him down a corridor, and then Blair and his team entered a lift. Then, to their horror, they couldn’t get the lift door to shut. So I peppered him with more questions. Shouldn’t he be in Gaza, doing something more important rather than celebrating 20 years? Mr Blair grimaced, but again didn’t answer.

The fact is, Gaza has always been very tricky for Tony Blair. He’s only been there twice in his seven years as Middle East peace envoy, and both of those trips were in early 2009, more than five years ago. That compares with 119 trips to Jerusalem in the same period (figures from Blair’s office).

He cites security reasons as to why he’s not visited Gaza more often, but the Hamas regime has never had much time for Blair. They’ve always been suspicious of his close ties and backing for Israel. Indeed, it was Blair’s refusal to condemn Israel‘s actions in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 that really led to the Gordon Brown coup which caused Blair’s downfall as Labour leader.

And in recent weeks Hamas has grown even more suspicious as Blair has forged close ties with President Sisi of Egypt.

Blair told the Progress conference today that once the current violence ceases, “the same energy” has to be put into creating a “long-term solution” to Gaza – involving as much effort as is currently being put into stopping the violence.  “Otherwise we’ll back in the same situation again,” he said.

Tony Blair came out in support of Ed Miliband, saying he wanted “a Labour government in 2015, with Ed as prime minister”. But he also took the chance, in front of a hugely Blairite audience, to stress the need for “progressive politics”.  He was, of course, codedly urging Miliband to move to the centre.

“In the first half of the twentieth century,” he said, “people looked to the state to deliver what the market could not. In time, however, they could see that the state could also become a vested interest and was often not an efficient provider of services. As people became wealthier, they became tax payers. Their entire attitude to the state changed as a result.”

That illustrates the great dividing line in modern politics, and which essentially divided Blair from Brown – between those who see the state as part of the problem, and those who see the state as part of the solution.

Whereas Ed Miliband would see himself as in the latter camp, Tony Blair sees himself as belonging the first.

Blair was also asked by Jim Pickard of the Financial Times – rather bravely – about the newspaper’s estimate that he’s worth £100m.

“The reports of my wealth are greatly exaggerated. Just for the record, I read that I’m supposed to be worth £100 million. Cherie’s kind of asking where it is in that case. I’m not worth that, a half of that, a third of that, a quarter of that, a fifth of that, and I could go on.”

So something below £20m then?

And Blair says that this wealth, and the income from his two businesses, helps him carry out his job as Middle East peace envoy without being being for it.

And if the situation improves in Gaza, I understand Tony Blair could be back in the area very soon.

A spokesperson for Tony Blair told Channel 4 News tonight:

“It’s untrue to suggest that Mr Blair has not been paying sufficient attention to the situation in Gaza and the Middle East.

“Mr Blair has been, and continues to be, fully involved. He’s been working intensively with senior figures in the region, where he has spent the last 10 days, and other leaders with an interest in building a framework for a cease fire.  He actually flew back into Britain from the Middle East in the early hours of this morning so that he could fulfil his commitment to the family of the late Philip Gould to speak at an event named in his honour.”

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter