“I’m accused of being a war criminal for removing Saddam Hussein – who, by the way, was a war criminal – and yet Jeremy is seen as a progressive icon as we stand by and watch the people of Syria barrel-bombed, beaten and starved into submission and do nothing,” Blair said.
Corbyn, who as a founder member of the Stop the War coalition was vehemently opposed to military action in Iraq in 2003, refused to back air strikes against the Syrian regime when the prime minister called a parliamentary vote on the issue last November – though he gave his MPs a free vote and allowed the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, to speak in favour of military action.
Corbyn has attracted hundreds of thousands of new supporters to the party over the past nine months, many of whom repudiate its actions in the run-up to the Middle East conflict and are highly critical of Blair – who won three elections for Labour from 1997.
But in an extraordinary personal attack, the former Labour leader suggested the incumbent was only interested in protesting and not in winning elections.
“There’s a guy whose face is on the placard,” Blair said. “That’s me: hate that guy. You’re the person in power taking difficult decisions. Jeremy is the guy with the placard, he’s the guy holding it. One’s the politics of power and the other’s the politics of protest.”
He also admitted to being bewildered by the “revolutionary phenomenon” of social media, which he said made David Cameron’s job running the country more difficult than his own had been, by “creating these waves of sentiment and emotion”.
Asked about the comments, Corbyn’s spokesman said: “I think what Tony Blair says is a matter for him, but if he’s suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn is leading a politics of protest, I would say that’s not correct.”
He went on to stress that Corbyn has no intention of sharing a platform with his predecessor to make the case for Britain remaining in the European Union. Asked whether the Labour leadership believed appearing alongside Blair would tarnish Corbyn’s reputation, he added: “I don’t have a view on whether Tony Blair is toxic or not.”
Discussing the EU referendum, Blair said he expected turnout on 23 June to be higher than for the general election, as voters realise the seriousness of the choice they face.
“I do believe there will be a big turnout for this. I mean, I think people do understand it’s a decision with seismic consequences, particularly economic consequences,” he told Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, John Micklethwait.
He questioned Boris Johnson’s claim to have “agonised” about whether to back Brexit. “I find it hard to understand how someone who’s been mayor of London can seriously think it’s not going to be economically damaging if Britain leaves the European Union.
“And one of the things I find strange is when people say, ‘Look, I had to agonise over this decision, I’m not quite sure but now I’ve come down on the side of remain.’ This is not one of those decisions.”
He praised Cameron’s conduct of the campaign to remain in the EU, striking a very different tone from Corbyn, who has continued to attack the prime minister and expose the divisions in the Tory party.
Blair said of the prime minister: “I think he’s fought the campaign you would expect from him and you’d want from him. I mean, there’s nothing more he can do as prime minister, and he’s put himself out there, he’s put the arguments out there.”