Tony Blair has accused a “debilitated” Labour party of allowing a disastrous Brexit to happen, as he called for a cross-party political movement to oppose leaving the EU.
The former Labour prime minister turned on his own party, saying there was inadequate opposition to Theresa May’s pursuit of Brexit at any cost.
“The debilitation of the Labour party is the facilitator of Brexit. I hate to say that, but it is true,” he said. “What this means is that we have to build a movement which stretches across party lines, and devise new ways of communication.”
He dismissed accusations it was undemocratic to carry on debating Brexit, arguing that the country could change its mind when people realised the “misery and pain” it would cause.
Speaking at Bloomberg in London on Friday, he said: “Where is the pressure on the government? The pressure is all one way.”
In his first major intervention since the referendum, Blair declared it his mission to persuade the UK to stay in the EU, calling for remain supporters to “rise up in defence of what we believe”.
“The people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind,” he said. “Our mission is to persuade them to do so.”
He argued people’s opinions were not immutable and debate about the wisdom of Brexit should not be stifled. “They will say the will of the people can’t alter. It can. They will say leaving is inevitable. It isn’t. They will say we don’t represent the people. We do, many millions of them and with determination many millions more,” he said.
Blair said he was setting up an institute to make the case against “Brexit at any cost”, but denied he was thinking of setting up a new political party on the centre ground.
He said he was not being personally critical of May but it was necessary to raise the alarm about the “jumble of contradictions” in her arguments for Brexit.
“They’re not driving this bus. They’re being driven … We will trigger article 50 not because we now know our destination, but because the politics of not doing so would alienate those driving the bus. The surreal nature of the exercise is enhanced by the curious absence of a big argument as to why this continues to be a good idea.”
Challenged about whether he was the right messenger, Blair said: “This a free country. I’ve got a right to speak and you’ve got a right to listen or not.”
He also raised eyebrows by saying the case for Scottish independence had become “more credible” as a result of Brexit, as the Scottish people voted to remain in contrast to England and Wales.
Blair is already facing a backlash from Conservative ministers and some on the remain side for arguing that people were misinformed when they voted for Brexit. May has repeatedly criticised those seeking to deny the “will of the people” as reflected by the EU referendum result, and Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has pledged not to block the triggering of Brexit.
Speaking at a G20 foreign ministers’ summit, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, said the EU debate was over and Blair’s speech was “insulting the intelligence of the electorate” with calls for them to think again.
“[People] were told the economy would go off a cliff, the very opposite has happened,” he said. “Our country has a phenomenal future and people are waking up to that.”
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“Whatever his merits as a former prime minister, this is the guy who would have taken our country into the euro, this is the guy who dragooned our country into the Iraq war on a completely false prospectus with consequences foreign ministers here [at the G20 summit] are still trying to deal with,” he said.
“So I respectfully say to Tony Blair, who urges the British people to rise up, I urge them to rise up and turn off the TV next time Blair comes on with his condescending campaign.”
Michael Gove, the former Tory cabinet minister and Brexit campaigner, accused Blair of “trying to undermine British democracy”, while Nigel Farage, former leader of Ukip, said: “He clearly hasn’t grasped that if the referendum was held again tomorrow the margin would be at least three times larger than it was last June.”
“There is yesterday’s man. He’s like the heavyweight world champion who has been retired for a few years who needs money so comes out of retirement and gets knocked out in the first round,” Farage added.
However, the former prime minister’s contribution was praised by the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, who said: “Tony Blair is right. The challenge now is to persuade people to change their mind – and the Liberal Democrats are the only party offering them a chance to have their voice heard again. Blair’s speech shows how badly Corbyn’s Labour has failed as an opposition. Labour have waved the white flag and given Theresa May a blank cheque for a divisive, hard Brexit.”
Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister and Lib Dem Brexit spokesman, also backed Blair, saying:
But some other pro-EU politicians were not impressed. Caroline Lucas, the Green party co-leader, called it “staggeringly unhelpful” and said it would be better if Blair “butted out” of the debate.
Blair’s intervention was particularly inflammatory as many of his critics have accused him of presiding over a wave of immigration from eastern European countries without being straight with the electorate about its likely magnitude. He directly addressed the issue of immigration in his speech, arguing that leaving the EU would only reduce the number of new arrivals to the UK by a fraction.
“There is, in some parts of the country, a genuine concern about numbers from Europe – real pressures on services and wages. But for many people, the core of the immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue – is immigration from non-European countries especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue.
“Nonetheless, we have moved in a few months from a debate about what sort of Brexit, involving a balanced consideration of all the different possibilities, to the primacy of one consideration – namely controlling immigration from the EU – without any real discussion as to why and when Brexit doesn’t affect the immigration people most care about.”
Blair’s position contrasts sharply with that of Corbyn, who took the decision to order his MPs to vote in favour of May’s Brexit bill last week. Four shadow cabinet ministers resigned so they could be among the 47 Labour MPs to vote against Brexit.
Corbyn has made clear Labour will not block Brexit, although the party is likely to renew its attempt to secure amendments to the bill when it passes through the Lords, starting on Monday.
Open Britain has emerged as a cross-party political force since the referendum, with the purpose of campaigning against a “hard, destructive Brexit”. Its key supporters in parliament include Clegg, the Tory MPs Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve, and the Labour MPs Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie.