Sir Tony Blair on 1997 landslide, Iraq, levelling up & Newcastle United owners

The former Sedgefield MP has spoken to ITV Tyne Tees about the backlash over his knighthood. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Nearly 25 years to the day since he became Prime Minister, Sir Tony Blair has defended his decisions over the war in Iraq, and his government's record in our region.

In a wide-ranging interview with our Political Correspondent Tom Sheldrick, he also spoke of his memories of the general election landslide in 1997, and backed the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United Football Club.

Sir Tony, now 68, was the Labour MP for Sedgefield between 1983 and 2007, when he left Downing Street.

Blair was made a member of the Order of the Garter in the New Year's Honours. More than a million people have signed a petition calling for him to have that knighthood removed, with particular focus on the war in Iraq.

In 2016, the Chilcot report found his government had chosen to join the US-led invasion before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.

Janice Proctor, the mother of Private Michael Tench, who was from Wearside and 18 years old when he died in Iraq, told us she was "disgusted" to learn of his knighthood and he is "not worthy of it."

Asked to respond, Blair said: "Of course I feel a huge amount of sympathy and distress for the people that were affected by those decisions, but when you are in office it is your job to take them, and you've got to take them and stick by them.

"The only thing I ever say to people is that you can disagree with the decision, but it really is not fair to say the decision was taken on the basis of deceit or lies or whatever people say about it."

Labour ended 18 years out of power with victory in the general election held on 1 May 1997.

On his memories, Sir Tony said: "I was still anxious and worried that maybe, as had often happened before, the polls turned out to be wrong and we wouldn't win.

"I remember walking out across the green by our house in Trimdon Colliery, going to the polling station and having to smile for the cameras but inside being anxious.

"You literally go from winning the election on the Thursday night; Friday morning you're Prime Minister and in charge of the country. I'd never been in office before, I'd never held any job in government before, so it was an extraordinary period."

Labour won 28 out of the 30 seats in the North East in 1997. Peter Mandelson, Mo Mowlam and Alan Milburn were among the MPs from the region who played leading roles in the cabinet.

Asked about whether his governments did enough for the North East, and how it remains among the most disadvantaged parts of the UK, Blair says: "we did significantly reduce the income gap between the north and the rest of the country."

"The economy was strong, that was producing the wealth that we were able then to use to build the hospitals and the schools and so on, which were a huge part of the success of the government. We had tax credits, we had the minimum wage, there was a lot of change."

Sedgefield now has a Conservative MP, among 11 Tories in the North East. Teesside has been a particular focus for the 'levelling up' agenda of Boris Johnson's government.

Asked if it is going to be hard for Labour to make the region a stronghold again, Blair said: "I think we can do that, but we've got to realise why we lost."

"Obviously part of it was to do with the hangover from the Brexit vote... but when we put up Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour party, I could have told you in my constituency it was going to be a problem.

"We've now got new leadership in the Labour party. I know Keir Starmer, he's a good man, he's patriotic, he wants to do the best by the country and I think that change will also help us."

Sir Tony is a Newcastle United supporter, and is enthusiastic about the Saudi-led takeover of the club last autumn. He said: "I think it's great that we've got investment coming into the club.

"It's going to be a big thing I think for the club, it's already made a difference."

Newcastle's ownership has been controversial, with questions over whether the club is effectively owned by the Saudi Arabian state, the state's human rights record and the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Asked about that, Blair said it "doesn't diminish any of the things that should never have happened, like Khashoggi, but it's important for people who are Newcastle United supporters to understand there is also huge change going on in the country."