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LONDON — Tony Blair is organizing a conference at the end of June alongside a new group called the British version of La République En Marche by Emmanuel Macron.
The Future of Britain conference, scheduled for June 30 and hosted by former BBC broadcasters Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis, according to several people involved in its planning. It is intended to discuss progressive solutions to the biggest issues facing Britain, including the economy, technology and climate change.
Blair will be the event address. Other participants in the program include US economist Larry Summers, financial journalist Martin Lewis and former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.
Organizers have set their sights even higher with a bid to involve French President Macron, according to three people familiar with the talks. One person said the organizers were “desperate to get him into the program somehow”. There was also an offer to involve David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, to talk about Britain’s place in the world.
The event is organized by the Tony Blair Institute and the Britain Project – a cross between a think tank and a campaign group. A youth engagement movement called My Life My Say is also involved.
While some see the potential for the loose coalition behind the conference to form a new political party, those involved are divided on how best to achieve their common goal of winning power from the center of British politics.
“Party of the New Embryonic Center”
The UK Project, a new group believed to take inspiration from Macron’s LREM, is holding fortnightly meetings to organize the conference and discuss wider plans.
Members of its advisory board include former Conservative cabinet ministers Rory Stewart and David Gauke, both of whom were kicked out of the party by Boris Johnson over Brexit. Former Labor MPs Angela Smith and Luciana Berger, former Times columnist Phil Collins and broadcaster Trevor Phillips also sit on the board.
The group was originally formed a few months after the 2019 general election by its now-director Monica Harding, the Liberal Democrat candidate vying to oust Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. Former Sunday Times journalist Cherry Norton is co-director.
For some of those directly involved, the group sows the seeds of a new party. For others, it is a think tank whose mission is to give intellectual weight to centrist principles, and perhaps provide Keir Starmer’s Labor Party with the political program it needs to win.
“There are people who think this is the embryo of the new center party, but no one wants to say that because they are the ones who will be slaughtered,” said a person familiar with the talks. “There’s a bit of this Julius Caesar thing of ‘no, please don’t give me the crown’.
The group talked about a proposal to contact Tesla founder Elon Musk for funding, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The group is raising funds to support its activities, which include hosting events and commissioning surveys.
The half-dozen people who spoke to POLITICO made it clear that the UK project was certainly not a new party – but no one would entirely rule out it becoming one in the future. Most cited the enormous barrier presented to insurgent parties by the first-past-the-post voting system and pointed to the experience of the dissident Independent Group of MPs in 2019, none of which won re-election.
“Keir’s leadership totally and completely kills talk of a new party – at least for now. Among the people running this – up to and including Tony Blair – there’s no clue about it. This thing is closer to a dreary think tank,” one of those involved said. “It’s designed to be a program, a set of ideas, for whoever wants it.”
The same person added: “You have to admit that the Labor right and the Conservative left have been intellectually disabled for quite a long time. The only ideas in British politics, like it or not, came from the Conservative right and the Labor left. They were intellectually more interesting, in a way, than the center.
Another person involved said: “It is not a political party, but it could potentially be a movement that puts pressure on existing parties to move in the right direction. Otherwise, there is a risk that our politics will become, on the one hand, the populist and nationalist Conservative party, and then a Labor party which is perhaps fighting for the same voters.
There are similarities between the nature of the UK project and the origins of Macron’s LREM, which began by organizing a form of citizens’ assembly involving in-depth interviews with 25,000 people in France and formed a think tank before becoming a left. Like LREM, Project Brittany prides itself on being open to people of all political affiliations.
Most of those involved speak warmly of the project and hope that it will develop a compelling set of ideas to address challenges such as the economy, health and climate change. But internal divisions have already emerged over the purpose and direction of the group. Some suspect other participants of trying to use it as a vehicle for their personal ambitions and there are frustrations that the project is becoming misguided and lacking in substance.
“Some of them are just monstrously ego driven,” said one of those close to the talks. “There is no sense that there is even any will to tackle all of these major issues – the economy, the technology, the climate, etc.”
They added: ‘It’s a smug party that will invite utter ridicule. The worst thing in practical politics is to be laughed at – it’ll just be comedy.
not so fast
Blair has been closely involved with the project and mentioned it in a keynote speech he gave in January, when he said the planned conference would seek to “set out a broad direction for Britain’s future “.
A spokesman for the Tony Blair Institute said: ‘The event scheduled for June 30 was flagged in Tony Blair’s speech in January on the future of Britain, when he said:’ There is a gaping hole in the UK government where new ideas should be… Above all, we need to make our economy highly competitive, attract world-class talent and make our independence from the EU a flat – form of economic growth. But he needs a plan, into which hard work and thought went. Policy details. Strategic analysis. Currently, there are none.
The spokesperson added: “The event has nothing to do with the creation of a new political party. It is a conference of ideas.
Notable in his absence from any of the talks is Peter Mandelson, the architect of the New Labor movement, who remains close to Blair. An insider says he is focused on getting Labor into government.
Those around Blair say he has absolutely no desire to lead a new party and does not see the British project as the main vehicle for his work. Earlier this month, he gave his explicit support to Starmer on a party policy show ahead of local elections.
A former member of Blair’s team who remains close to him said: “Tony is impressed with Keir. He thinks he’s good, he thinks he can and will be prime minister. So that’s high praise.
The same person added: “His reservation is that he would like Keir to go harder and faster and push the party back to the political center faster. But the limitation to that isn’t really, in Tony’s estimation, a Keir deficiency; it’s that the Labor Party is much more reluctant to move in this way than it was when he was leader.
Meanwhile, senior Labor officials now believe there is a strong chance they will emerge as the biggest party at the next general election without winning an outright majority. Some shadow cabinet ministers believe that in this scenario they would have to govern for a while with the support of small centre-left parties, vote by vote.
A Labor official said there were no talks with smaller parties at the moment.
If Labor lost the election, Starmer’s senior advisers discussed a proposal allowing him to stay on for a transition period of six to twelve months to allow sufficient time for the election of his successor.
The former member of Blair’s team said: “It’s a lot harder for Keir than for Tony. Because by the time Tony became leader, not only had the Tories collapsed, but Labor was really hungry to be government, really suddenly quite pissed off losing all the time. And Labor is almost in that position now – but not quite. He doesn’t quite have that real, desperate hunger.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of Tony Blair’s planned speech at the event.