Adrian Hamilton: Our Prime Minister is no statesman

Blair the domestic politician knows there are just no votes in Europe as far as the British voter is concerned
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The Independent Online

For historians wanting to get to grips with Tony Blair's style of government, or indeed the luminaries meeting at dinner last night to proclaim him the "statesman of the decade", there can be no more salutary example of Blair in action than the last six months in Europe.

At one end, you have a speech to the European Parliament at the beginning of the UK presidency that wowed the audience and had his cheerleaders in the British media hailing Europe as his bid for posterity.

Six months later, you have the same Prime Minister, with his back to the wall, desperately using all his powers of persuasion to get even his closest allies in Europe to agree a budget deal that might avoid disaster at the summit of leaders next week.

So what has happened in the meantime? The straight answer is nothing. Nothing, that is, in the sense that the man who gave such a fine speech in June did almost nothing to build on the resulting goodwill in the months after, nor used his considerable gifts of cajolery to prepare the way for budget discussions which he knew months ago had to be tackled. There is nothing in the latest deal that couldn't have been offered last summer, with a great deal more effect.

It's not lethargy that explains the loss of momentum. Blair remains a man of extraordinary energy and freshness even after eight years in office. Nor is it that the Prime Minister doesn't care exactly. If that were so, he would hardly be putting quite so much effort into seeking a deal, and reversing his previous stand on never giving up the British rebate. A less image-conscious politician would see that it might be better for Britain, and give it more room for manoeuvre, if he left the budget settlement to the Austrian presidency next year.

For such a supreme tactician as Blair, the presidency was never going to be a glorious success, and to that extent he was never going to risk all in trying to make it so. Blair the domestic politician also knows that there are just no votes in Europe as far as the British voter is concerned.

Success or failure on the continent means very little to an electorate that is not so much antagonistic as just distanced from the whole subject. When we were doing badly and Europe well economically, then it mattered, but not now it is the other way round.

Tony Blair can still talk the talk of international horizons and Britain's world leadership. Indeed, he does. But the hard reality is the transatlantic option has been soured by Iraq, and the European project has been marginalised by the collapse of political leadership there. Bush is no longer a man to be associated with. Nor is Silvio Berlusconi.

Little wonder then that all the briefing from No 10 concerns domestic reform. That, Blair keeps telling anyone who'll listen, is where he wants his legacy to lie, not in the wider reaches of a world which he once seemed so keen to conquer.

This may come as something of a surprise for the loyal guests at last night's dinner, who still see Blair as a global rather than a purely domestic figure. But then for foreigners it is harder to appreciate what most of Britain has long since learned to understand. Blair is a politician for whom words are not just the means to an end, but the end itself.

He has made his reputation not, as David Cameron has clearly learned and is keen to copy, by policy but by tone, by his sense of identity with his audience. Blair's June speech to the European parliament was a fine example. In it, he gave voice to all the desire for change, for starting anew, that the French and Dutch rejections of the constitution had released. Here was a man who understood, and could express, what Europe now needed to do.

And that, for Tony Blair, was enough. It didn't need to be followed up with actions, with behind-the-scenes negotiation, with developing a consensus and gathering the forces for change, any more than his speeches on Middle East peace or the reform of British education needed the application of the political arts to achieve practical results. Creating the image was sufficient unto itself.

This is where his style of government comes into play. Much has been written about the Blair preference for "sofa decision-making", his concentration of the levers of power in No 10, the enfeeblement of cabinet government and the politicisation of the Civil Service. The response has been a dismissal of critics as whining ministers and grumbling civil servants unable to come to terms with the presidential style of government that was developing well before New Labour came to power.

But the problem of the Blair administration is not the centralisation of power, nor the castration of the Cabinet. It is the neutering of any system that might normally offer advice before a decision, and the means of implementation after it. Blair took the country to war without any thought of the likely consequences, although there were plenty around who could have advised him. He took up the presidency of Europe without any plan as to how to pursue his aims, although the machinery was around to carry out his wishes. In that sense, Britain under Blair has had a government without governance.

Tony Blair is a great political tactician. The finest of his generation. His achievement is already there, in making a previously unelectable party win three elections in a row. But a statesman? The statesman of the decade? If only it were so.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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