There was a time when Tony Blair was so toxic, because of the war in Iraq, his backing would have been seen as a mixed blessing.

But the former PM’s intervention today could end up being a significant factor in an attempt by health groups to revive the war on obesity, which is in a critical state under the current government.

After a series of u-turns and delays, legislation promised by another former PM, Boris Johnson, and his then health secretary Matt Hancock, has either been massively watered down or abandoned.

That includes the proposals for a ban on multibuy promotions and an HFSS TV and online advertising clampdown, which have both been kicked into the long grass.

Meanwhile, National Food Strategy author Henry Dimbleby quit in March, accusing the government of ignoring his proposals to tackle obesity, including calls for a raft of new taxes on HFSS products.

Today, The Grocer was first to reveal that almost 40 campaign groups launched a bid to bring those plans back from the brink, with household name charities such as the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK and several royal colleges reviving calls to extend the soft drinks sugar levy to include a raft of new categories, in line with proposals in the NFS.

Government cannot go on with obesity costs

The Recipe for Change campaign wants a £3/kg levy on sugar and £6/kg levy on salt applied to all sugar and salt used in manufactured foods, restaurants and the catering industry.

It would make the soft drinks sugar levy seem like a drop in the ocean. And it’s the worst nightmare of those who fear the “nanny state” .

It’s not just opposition from the food industry and powerful Tory backbenchers that such moves will face, as health groups attempt to make the war on obesity once more an election issue ahead of voters going to the polls sometime next year.

The cost of living crisis has seen the government effectively veto a whole series of policies, on the grounds that they could damage the battle to bring down inflation. At the same time, Labour has been going out of its way to stress it will not back policies that cannot be funded without hitting hard-pressed voters in the pocket.

While this week’s BRC-Nielsen figures showed anual shop price inflation had dropped to 6.9% in August as food inflation continues to decelerate, food price growth remains in double digits. Labour has been desperate to rule out anything that will throw a spanner in the works as it looks to be seen as a credible opposition.

That, of course, is where Blair’s argument comes in. Writing in the Times today, he says the cost to the NHS of fighting obesity is such that governments cannot simply go on allowing it to spiral.

“We’ve got to shift from a service that’s treating people when they’re ill to a service that’s focused on wellbeing, on prevention, on how people live more healthy lives,” he argues.

Blair calls for politicians to show leadership and drive through action to make diets more healthy, arguing “you’ve just got to take the decision and just get on with it and live it through”.

Personal responsibility obesity policies not worked

With the Labour party conference in Liverpool fast approaching, these are words that are clearly aimed as much at Keir Starmer as Rishi Sunak, who has made it quite clear which side of the argument he is on.

Starmer and Blair have appeared to become close in recent months, as the Labour leader’s grip on his party has become more secure, thanks to its big lead in the polls.

But it is still far from clear whether he and his shadow ministers will put their heads above the parapet and place public health and the war on obesity on the frontline of the debate.

“As Blair says, politicians need to get on and do it,” says one health lobby source. “The obesity policies about personal responsibility haven’t worked – people are surrounded by cheap junk food that’s difficult to escape.

“So the exam question surely, given the evidence of rising obesity and all the difficulty that will bring, is ‘why wouldn’t you do it?’.”

But as the Tories have found, there are plenty, both in Westminster and in the food and drink industry who have a different view. They argue that the biggest blow to the poor and hungry would be interventionist policies that raise prices.

It is an explosive political debate waiting to happen. The big question now is whether the intervention from people like Blair will see it come to the fore as party conference season arrives and the battle for the election prepares to go into overdrive.