President Tony: the ghost at the Tories' feast

Behind the party's debate on Europe lies the spectre of their former nemesis becoming the EU's first president. Andrew Grice reports

"You are the guy for this job; you should do it," Nicolas Sarkozy told Tony Blair. The job was "president of Europe". But the former prime minister was non-committal; his reply was a shrug of the shoulders and that cheeky smile.

According to friends of Mr Blair, the French President has said something like this to him on several occasions. Mr Sarkozy also believes he is the perfect cheerleader: a centre-right leader promoting a man from the centre-left, a Frenchman promoting a Briton. His support causes convulsions among French diplomats, who feel they owe Britain no favours.

Soon Mr Blair will have to decide whether he wants to be president of the European Council – the 27 presidents and prime ministers from EU member states. The Treaty of Lisbon, which creates the post, cleared its biggest remaining hurdle when Ireland voted Yes in last Friday's referendum.

Mr Blair won't talk about the job, even in private. Officially, he does not want to campaign for a post that does not yet exist. The real reason is that he does not want to be rebuffed. If he doesn't get it, he would get on with his life: his lucrative public speaking engagements, his work as a Middle East peace envoy, on climate change, trying to bring democracy to Africa and his inter-faith foundation.

Some of the people who work with him are urging him not to throw his hat in the ring. Yet close friends admit that the former prime minister wants the Europe post. At 56, he is younger and fitter than many of the 27 leaders whose agenda he would drive through in a role that would replace the "Buggin's turn" EU rotating presidency for individual member states. "He feels that he has one more big job in him," one Blair ally said yesterday. "Europe is his unfinished business."

As prime minister, he fought an often lonely battle to be pro-European and got little credit: Eurosceptics accused him of selling out, while Europhiles were disappointed that he didn't go far enough.

Some aides, including Alastair Campbell, told him there were no votes in it, that he would merely upset Britain's Eurosceptic-dominated newspapers. Senior cabinet ministers like Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Jack Straw were more sceptical than he was. His chancellor thwarted his drive to take Britain into the euro. Despite that, by investing time and energy with our European partners, Mr Blair defied predictions by keeping Britain at the EU's top table.

The friendships he built, notably with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, may be useful as EU capitals weigh up their options. He also courted smaller countries and the new entrants from central and eastern Europe.

Mr Blair will not have welcomed all the speculation about him landing the post. "The last person you want to be is the favourite," said one Brussels insider. "Others will try to stop you in the hope that they will emerge."

The job is by no means in the bag. Some countries may oppose a British president because the UK is not a member of the euro and the Schengen "open borders" agreement. The "Iraq factor" may be overstated. It rankles with some MEPs but 23 of the EU's then-25 governments supported the 2003 invasion, even if their peoples did not. Only Germany and France opposed the war, and their new leaders now seem to be backing Mr Blair.

The timing will be crucial. It is by no means certain that the 27 leaders will be able to choose the new president at their next meeting on 29 October. Although Poland will ratify the Lisbon Treaty now that the Irish people has approved it, the Czech Republic has yet to sign up. Vaclav Klaus, its Eurosceptic president, will not play for time in the hope that an incoming British Conservative government scuppers the treaty by holding a referendum. But a constitutional wrangle in the Czech Republic may not be resolved until after this month's EU meeting. That could push the appointment into next year. "If there was a vote now, Blair would get it," said one Brussels diplomat. "But if it is after Christmas, it could be very different."

The trappings of power in Brussels have probably been exaggerated. The headlines suggest that Mr Blair could earn £3.5m over five years. Yet the (as yet undecided) salary of around £250,000 would mean a considerable sacrifice to return to public service. The appointment would be for two-and-a-half years, not five. No decisions have been made, but it is likely that President Blair would try to persuade Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff for 13 years, to give up his banking role at Morgan Stanley to head his Brussels office. The exact role is remarkably ill-defined. There are potential turf wars with a new foreign affairs supremo also created by the treaty and Jose Manuel Barroso, recently reappointed as president of the European Commission for another five-year term.

"He doesn't want to spend his time chairing boring meetings in Brussels," said one friend. "If he does it, he wants it to be the EU's figurehead."

Mr Blair is unlikely to be disappointed. If the EU leaders choose him, they know they will be opting for a heavy-hitter, not a lightweight. "They know what they will be getting," the friend said. "It's up to them."

Blair's rivals Other candidates for the presidency

*Jan Peter Balkenende The bespectacled Dutch Prime Minister is a mild Christian Democrat who heads a coalition government. He has a proven record in brokering compromises but is unlikely to set the EU on fire.

*Herman van Rompuy The Belgian Prime Minister is keen to block Tony Blair because Britain twice vetoed Belgian candidates for senior EU positions.

*Felipe Gonzáles The chances of Spain's Prime Minister are hampered by the fact that another Iberian, the European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, already holds a top post.

n Jean-Claude Junker Luxembourg's Prime Minister is the longest- serving head of any European government but his federalist zeal does not go down well in some EU capitals.

*Mary Robinson The former Irish president and UN commissioner is the only woman in the running, but is let down by the fact she has not been in government and has no direct knowledge of the European Council, the body she would be heading.

*Paavo Lipponen The former prime minister of Finland, a country which has a long tradition of fielding excellent candidates for international posts.