LONDON – There are few second acts in political lives. This is a truth Tony Blair appears to be discovering the hard way. The former British prime minister, now most famous for being the most eloquent salesman for the American-led war against Saddam Hussein, has kept a low profile since he left Downing Street five years ago. Even his work as the Quartet’s representative to the Middle East has attracted little attention. Now, however, the word on the London Street is that Blair wants to "re-engage" with British politics.
This week, he testified before the Leveson Inquiry investigating the links -- complicated and often humiliating -- between the British media and political elites, a many-tentacled monster spawned by the News of the World scandal. It was a classic Blair performance: plausible and impressive, yet shameless too. No, he insisted, despite being godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch's children, Blair was never that close to the English-speaking world's most powerful media mogul. They only developed a more than "working" relationship after Blair left office. Believe that if you will. And if you do, perhaps you still believe that Iraq had mobile chemical weapons labs?
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Blair has been meeting with the new Labour leader Ed Miliband and hosting small gatherings of freshmen Labour MPs at which he offers tactical and strategic advice on how best the party can take advantage of David Cameron's weaknesses. Despite his years away from the fray, few doubt Blair’s instinctive ability to understand Middle England, but even so his return prompts an awkward question: What is Tony Blair for?
Like his old chum Bill Clinton, Blair entered office in his 40s. Like Clinton, he plainly misses the political fray. But while Clinton’s Global Initiative has partially solved the “What shall we do with Bill?” problem, Blair is still desperately seeking relevance. He has lost an empire but not yet found a role.
At one point he hoped he might become president of the European Council, an ambition that -- given his past associations with George W. Bush (a man not thought of all that fondly in Brussels) and Britain's ambivalent relationship with the European Union -- always seemed a hopeless, even vainglorious, cause. So it proved: The job went to the comparatively little-known Belgian Herman von Rompuy instead.
The misadventure in Mesopotamia similarly doomed any hope Blair might have of earning a big-ticket United Nations job, while his lack of interest in economics ensured there'd be no assignment for him at the International Monetary Fund.
An admittedly unscientific survey of Guardian readers found that only one in three would welcome Blair's return to British public life. For many on the left, Blair's determination to remove Saddam Hussein from power makes him some kind of war criminal. The left expected no less, you see, from the man from Crawford, Texas, but Blair was supposed to be cut from better cloth. Thus this betrayal runs deep: Even his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry -- almost a decade after the Iraq war began -- was interrupted by a protestor demanding Blair be prosecuted for "war crimes."
His chief public duty, in the five years since he was ejected by a mutiny within his own party, has been acting as the Quartet's representative in the Middle East. Even this, however, has been a part-time assignment. Though those who pay attention to these matters tend to agree that Blair has done good work, this endeavor has produced few tangible rewards.
If his work in the Middle East has been too humdrum for a bored press corps to bother covering (few Britons are exercised by worthy initiatives to stimulate the Palestinian economy) the same cannot be said of Blair's other post-office existence. Much of this, as far as the British press is concerned, can be reduced to a simple question: How may I, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, become properly filthy rich and how quickly can I do it?
Blair is hardly the first former British premier to cash in on his fame. Winston Churchill was a tireless self-propagandist, while Margaret Thatcher cashed in on the American lecture circuit before infirmity and dementia curtailed her public appearances. Blair's predecessor, John Major, has made millions as European director of the Carlyle Group. But none of these former prime ministers attracted the opprobrium reserved for Blair.
Then again, none of them were portrayed as a vulgar, money-grubbing parvenu either. If Blair's government always was, in the words of his confidante Peter Mandelson -- "intensely relaxed" about the pursuit of money, the former prime minister has been no slouch in that matter either. No one quite knows how much money Blair has made since leaving Downing Street, but his offices in London's Grosvenor Square (where his neighbors include the U.S. embassy) are reported to cost £550,000 a year to rent; his consultancy firm and other interests earned, according to their most recent accounts, £12 million last year. This includes, it is believed, £3 million from J.P. Morgan and hefty fees from foreign governments persuaded that Blair's advice is worth yet more millions. Among Blair's clients: the governments of countries such as Kuwait and Kazakhstan. No wonder, perhaps, that the British press calls this new man Blair, Inc.