Try googling ‘heir to Blair’. The top responses include:
‘Cameron really was the true heir to Blair…’
‘How Boris Johnson became the heir to Blair…’
‘Boris is the true heir to Blair…’
‘As a loathed former leader, Corbyn is the real heir to Blair…’
and even this:
‘Is Gareth Southgate the real heir to Blair?’
What does this show us? Evidently, journalists enjoy using the phrase ‘heir to Blair’. It does rhyme after all. But also, it’s quite a loose term. People use it to mean different things. When people use it to describe Conservative politicians, it has complimentary connotations. David Cameron famously described himself as the heir to Blair in 2005. But what does it actually mean to be the heir to Blair?
It seems to me that the phrase is used to denote charisma, and generally, the ability to manage one’s public image. An heir to Blair is slick, and masterfully navigates the modern media to deliver electoral success to his (and it seems, always a ‘his’) party. A Guardian article says that both Cameron and Blair put faith in their ‘persuasive gifts’. A CityAM article says that Boris Johnson is the heir to Blair in virtue of his use of electoral ‘pledges’, which are at base about presentation: ‘Most people find policy boring. So don’t drown them in it. Show them just a few things you know move them deeply.’ It argues that Boris Johnson’s promises are ‘more vivid’, and praises his usage of ‘memorable ear-worms’. Eventually, the article says explicitly: ‘Message discipline was at the heart of New Labour’. In short, then, being like Blair means being a smooth operator, with an excellent eye for presentation. David Cameron is the heir to Blair in virtue of his stinging one-liners at PMQs, or his famous photograph taken hugging some huskies in the snow. Keir Starmer too might be the heir to Blair; after all, he has pretty slick hair, and seems to be frantically building a personal brand centred around competence and responsibility.
Was Cameron the heir to Blair? I don’t think so. You can only argue this if you forget that Tony Blair’s appeal lay beyond his public image; he also totally altered the values of the Labour Party. Take, for instance, Blair scrapping Clause 4, the Labour Party’s explicit commitment to socialism. The move was hugely controversial, and yes, it was a brilliant way of communicating to the public that Blair was bringing something new to the table. But it was more than communication; it was part of a substantial change to the priorities of the Labour party. For the first time, Labour would prioritise the mostly capitalist concerns of middle-England. Accordingly, Blair promised not to raise income tax, actually cut VAT, and promised to reduce the number of people on benefits. One need only look at how much opposition these changes created to realise that they were about far more than image. Alistair Campbell’s political diaries detail the excruciating, constant battle with members of the party at nearly every stage of implementing Blair’s plan. But this is because Blair was a leader who changed what Labour stood for. He was a great communicator, but equally important was what he communicated: a totally new vision of a modern Britain led by a centrist Labour Party.
But this clarity of vision is nowhere to be seen with the likes of Cameron. If we were to ask what his vision was for the Conservative Party, we would probably say two things: he tried to make it more liberal, and he tried to make it more green. But in terms of policy, he changed very little in these areas. Legalising gay marriage was certainly a step towards liberalism, and it did cause the Tories some trouble with grass-roots Christian voters. But what else did Cameron actually do to liberalise Britain? His ‘hug a hoodie’ promise to be liberal on criminals was piecemeal at best; whilst rehabilitation in prison was extended, so were police powers to stop and search. The 2010 manifesto actually promised to increase prison capacity and increase the number of crimes for which foreign nationals can be deported. Similarly, it isn’t clear what Cameron achieved for Britain on climate change. He started well, passing the 2008 Climate Change Bill, but later on in his premiership, he backed fracking, eventually saying in 2014 ‘we’re going all out for Shale’. In 2015, Cameron’s government even removed the requirement for newly built homes to be ‘zero carbon’. So much for Cameron’s green credentials.
So whilst Cameron was a smooth communicator, the notion that he is comparable to Blair seems totally wrong. Blair’s media presence existed to sell the country a comprehensive vision for Britain, and he governed in line with that vision. But Cameron’s media presence, which seemed to centre on being green and being liberal, was ultimately more style than substance. In both areas, Cameron’s actual policies were piecemeal. But what about Keir?
Having long been criticised for failing to outline a policy plan, Keir Starmer used the Labour Party conference to try and reassure voters that he had a vision. He confirmed a number of policies, but what is interesting is how many of them are focussed on schooling; Keir promised to reinstate mandatory work experience in secondary school, has promised to increase taxes paid by top private schools, and wants to add ‘digital skills’ to the national curriculum. In addition to this, Keir wants to introduce mental health targets for the NHS, whereby people will wait a maximum of one month before getting treatment for mental illness. Perhaps Starmer is trying to outline a vision for Britain which is centred on the prosperity and opportunities of young people. This would be a first in the UK, and would involve revolutionising the values and policy of the Labour Party once more. It is too soon to say, but if Keir’s bid for power really does focus on young people, and if he succeeds in communicating it, perhaps he really is the heir to Blair.