Brexit could be halted if the British people decided the costs of leaving the EU greatly outweighed any benefits, Tony Blair has said in an interview marking his self-proclaimed return to political activity.
While stressing he was not planning a return to frontline politics – “there’s just too much hostility” – Blair told the New Statesman he wanted to “create the space for a political debate about where modern western democracies go and where the progressive forces particularly find their place”.
On Brexit, Blair stressed he was not predicting it would not happen, only that that was a possibility. “It can be stopped if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain, cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up,” he said.
Such a turnaround could arise in one of two ways, both of them hinging on negotiations over access to the EU’s single market, Blair said.
“Either you get maximum access to the single market, in which case you’ll end up accepting a significant number of the rules on immigration, on payment into the budget, on the European court’s jurisdiction. People may then say, ‘Well, hang on, why are we leaving then?’
“Or alternatively, you’ll be out of the single market and the economic pain may be very great because, beyond doubt, if you do that you’ll have years, maybe a decade, of economic restructuring.”
Brexit was “like agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house”, the former Labour prime minister said. And while the referendum campaign was won by the leave side, even those voters would eventually “look at this in a practical way, not an ideological way”.
In the wide-ranging interview, Blair praised Theresa May as “a very solid, sensible person” who faced a hugely difficult task in steering the country and her party through Brexit.
Blair denied calling Jeremy Corbyn a “nutter”, saying the Labour leader was principled but, in his view, mistaken. Labour’s leadership “has been captured by the far left for the first time in the party’s history”.
He said: “I hope that the Labour party realises that it has a historic duty to try to represent people in this country who need our representation desperately.”
Speaking about the US election, Blair argued that people should seek to engage with the president-elect, Donald Trump, and hope that “the Trump who is a deal-maker and a non-ideologue comes through”.
In one striking passage, Blair said he could understand the appeal of the Republican party’s warnings about the threat from Islamist terrorism, saying the Democrats had been too cautious over the issue.
“What is very instructive is to go look at the Democratic platform for that election and look at the Republican one – leave aside Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Just look at those two platforms and you’ll see what the problem is.
“For example, when it comes to a discussion of radical Islam and the Islamist threat, the Democrats felt that, for reasons I completely understand, that if you talked about it in that language, the general prevailing sense is that you were then stigmatising all Muslims.
“I don’t personally agree with that. I think that you’re perfectly able to distinguish between Islamists and Muslims. But there is a threat that is based on the perversion of religion, and you should acknowledge it as such in my view.
“Whereas the Republicans had a whole section that was all about that. Again, if you’re looking at America and how they feel about things, what they feel is that the liberal left is unwilling to have a discussion about these things.”
More generally, Blair argued, Trump won the election because “there are various issues upon which the Republican platform was stronger than the Democrats”.
He said: “And this is part of a general global movement, which is partly a reaction to globalisation and partly economic. But it is also a lot to do with culture and identity, and people’s feelings that the world is changing rapidly around them and that the left doesn’t get this.”
On Trump’s appeal, he said: “I could see why there would be Americans, even in the centre ground, who might be attracted by that platform – even if, by the way, they weren’t attracted by the personality of the person who is the standard bearer. There’s got to be a lot of analysis as to why this happened.”
Having wound down his sometimes controversial business interests, Blair, 63, said he was seeking to again influence politics from a position he called the “progressive centre or centre-left”.
On a less serious note, Blair said he had “huge admiration” for Ed Balls appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, and watched the show regularly. He would not, however, be tempted to take part. “No, I absolutely would not dare to do that,” he said. “I absolutely take my hat off to him and I think he’s been brilliant.”