Tony Blair won the formal backing of Gordon Brown yesterday as Britain's candidate to become the first "President of Europe".
Downing Street endorsed Baroness (Glenys) Kinnock, the Europe minister, who said in Strasbourg: "The UK Government is supporting Tony Blair's candidature for President of the [European] Council." Asked if the prospect had been discussed with Mr Blair, she said: "It is the Government's position. I am sure they would not do that without asking him." Mr Brown's spokesman said: "What the Prime Minister supports is Tony Blair's candidature for the President of the European Council if Tony Blair decides that that is what he would like to do and as and when such a position exists."
The post would be created, possibly as early as next January, if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. The biggest remaining hurdle is a second referendum in Ireland in October, but opinion polls suggest people will vote Yes this time.
Allies of Mr Blair said he was not campaigning actively for the job but would be interested if it involved being a figurehead representing the European Union on the world stage. "He doesn't want to spend his time chairing meetings of EU leaders," one said.
The scope of the new post has not been defined. Brussels insiders warned that Mr Blair could miss out unless he shows he is hungry for it. "He has to really want it and work for it to be successful," one said. Even his critics admit Mr Blair is the most heavyweight of the candidates in the frame. But he faces opposition in some quarters. Some countries do not want Britain to land the post because it is not inside the eurozone and nor is it party to the "open borders" Schengen agreement. Although memories of Mr Blair's role in the Iraq war have faded, it still rankles for some European politicians.
Other potential candidates include Felipe Gonzalez, the veteran former Spanish prime minister. He is said to be favoured by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who initially championed Mr Blair. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is thought to be lukewarm about the idea of "President Blair".
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said the former prime minister should be let "nowhere near the job". He said: "The creation of a new EU President could be enormously damaging for Europe. Any holder is likely to try to centralise power for themselves in Brussels and dominate national foreign policies. In the hands of an operator as ambitious as Tony Blair, that is a near certainty."
A spokesman for Mr Blair said: "There is no campaign. As we have said time and again on this, there is nothing to be a candidate for since the job doesn't actually exist."
Denis MacShane, Labour's former Europe minister, said: "Blair cannot avoid having his name being dragged into any list of names for top jobs. Does he really, really want it? Does he know himself?"
One EU official said: "The difficulty is that no one has come up with a proper job description. People say the exact nature of the job will be shaped by whoever is appointed, and whoever is appointed must be a former president or prime minister of a member state."