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Updated: March 30, 2010 18:54 IST

Former PM Tony Blair returns to campaign trail

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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. File photo: AP.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. File photo: AP.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair made a dramatic pre-election return to domestic British politics on Tuesday with an attack on the policies of David Cameron, the smooth young Conservative leader sometimes nicknamed “Tory Blair.”

Mr. Blair’s return, weeks before a national election, came in a speech urging voters to give his Labour Party a fourth term in office.

“In uncertain times, there’s a lot to be said for certain leadership,” Mr. Blair said, dismissing the Conservative campaign slogan “vote for change” as “the most vacuous slogan in politics.”

Mr. Blair has made few appearances in Britain since he quit as prime minister in 2007, though his January testimony defending his actions in Iraq to the country’s inquiry into the war marked a return to the limelight.

In more comfortable mode in a room full of Labour supporters in his old constituency, it was as if he’d never been gone. Here was the easy smile, the friendly crowd at the Trimdon Constituency Labour Club in northeast England - and the gaggle of protesters outside as a reminder of Mr. Blair’s unpopular decision to go to war in Iraq.

Mr. Blair remains a divisive figure, but Labour leaders are calculating that despite lingering anger over the war, his record of having won three consecutive elections makes him an asset in the tight race. An election must be held by June 3, and is widely expected to be on May 6.

Mr. Blair praised the record of his successor, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and attacked Mr. Cameron’s Tories as a party without principles.

He praised Mr. Brown’s stewardship of the economy, saying that 18 months after the near-collapse of the global banking system, “we are not out of the woods yet, but we are on the path out.”

“At the moment of peril the world acted. Britain acted,” Mr. Blair said. “The decision to act required experience, judgment and boldness. It required leadership. Gordon Brown supplied it.”

Mr. Blair has a famously tense relationship with Mr. Brown, who succeeded him as prime minister in June 2007. For most of the time since then the Conservatives have held a double—digit lead over Labour in opinion polls. But in recent months the race has tightened, raising Labour’s hopes of clinging on for a fourth term.

Mr. Cameron, the fresh—faced, 43—year—old Conservative leader, has often been likened to Mr. Blair, who won power in 1997 after dragging his party to the political centre and rebranding it “New Labour.”

Mr. Blair rejected the comparison and accused the Conservatives of lacking principles.

“They look like they’re either the old Tory party but want to hide it, or they’re not certain which way to go,” Mr. Blair said. “They seem like they haven’t made up their minds about where they stand, so the British public finds it hard to make up its mind about where it stands.”

The pro—Labour Daily Mirror newspaper crowed about the return of the “Blair Force,” but Britain’s former leader also comes with baggage. Reg Keys, whose son Lance Cpl. Tom Keys was killed in Iraq in 2003, said Mr. Blair “is more of a liability than an asset in a campaign.”

“Iraq is a very controversial issue and it has divided the country,” Keys said.

Mr. Blair has kept a high international profile since leaving office, serving as an international Middle East envoy, setting up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, working on a memoir, due to be published in September, and making speeches around the world for hefty fees.

Mr. Cameron said he wasn’t worried by Mr. Blair’s intervention.

“It is nice to see him making a speech that nobody is paying for,” Mr. Cameron said.

The opposition leader also knows that Mr. Blair’s time in office and the U.S.—led Iraq war left him with two other nicknames: Teflon Tony and Bush’s poodle.

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