Adrian Hamilton: Why Blair didn't go to Moscow for VE Day

The official excuse - that he was wrapped up in the Cabinet reshuffle - just doesn't wash
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The Independent Online

It's not only British commentators who are surprised by Tony Blair's decision not to attend the VE parade in Moscow along with other heads of state; it's the other heads of state themselves. A British Prime Minister, fresh from a third electoral victory, presumably eager to reassert himself on the world stage as chair of the G8 group of industrialised nations and soon to be president of the European Union - it just doesn't make sense that he should stay busying himself in Westminster.

The official excuse - that Blair was occupied with the Cabinet reshuffle - just doesn't wash. The main outlines of that were complete by Saturday morning, and Moscow's celebrations didn't happen until Monday. The more junior appointments could easily have been left a few more days or hurried through. To say that the appointment of parliamentary secretaries is more important than representing Britain at a gathering of world leaders gives a very weird view of the British premier's priorities.

Nor is it good enough to say that Britain didn't need to be represented by more than the Deputy Prime Minister. Look along the row of figures on the Red Square podium: presidents Bush, Putin and Chirac, Chancellor Schröder, prime ministers Koizumi and Berlusconi, and then, there in the back row - John Prescott. It's simply not serious, and certainly not for a country that takes such pride in its part in the Second World War.

No, the simple truth is that Blair didn't go because he didn't want to. We're back in the tsunami situation, when the Prime Minister declined to cut short his holiday in Egypt and his officials discreetly briefed commentators that part of the reason was that he felt that whatever he did would be misinterpreted. Stay on the beach and he would be accused of not taking the tragedy seriously, rush back to London and he would be dismissed as making political capital out of human disaster.

That says a great deal not just about how Tony Blair is perceived by a large section of the public (and you can hardly deny it is large after the evidence of the election), but also how he now perceives the way in which he is viewed. Just as in January, the British Prime Minister looks not just tired but also diminished.

Having been caught out by the strength of hostility to him on the big issues, it as if he is now almost embarrassed at the grand roles on the world stage to which he once aspired. Even the shortlist of foreign policy aspirations - Africa, the environment and Palestine - that he mentioned at the end of his Downing Street peroration after the election sounded almost like afterthoughts.

Against the contempt and the disbelief he arouses when he tries to play the role of world statesman and grand visionary, the domestic concerns of shorter waiting lists, less "disrespect" in the streets and higher standards in the schools seem not just of more immediate concern to the voters but also more comforting and secure for the Prime Minister.

There was a time when Tony Blair would have been up there with President Bush, proving even more eloquent about the lessons of VE Day for "freedom". Now he doesn't seem to believe that he will be believed. And perhaps he's right.

It may be that Blair genuinely sees radical reform in the delivery of public services - whatever he may mean by that - as his real legacy, the contribution that justifies his continuing hanging on to power. But it may also be that, for want of anything better, it is the only thing he can now hope for.

Either way, it hardly a satisfactory position, or even ambition, for the head of the British government. At the very least it puts even greater strain on the already stretched relationship with his Chancellor and would-be successor, Gordon Brown. The relationship between the two men worked, in so far as it did, because in the early years Blair concentrated on the foreign side, Brown on domestic policy.

In recent years, the more the Prime Minister has ventured into home territory - on top-up fees, on competition in the health service - the more fractious the relationship has become. If Blair is now intending to spend virtually all his time on domestic questions, the possibility of almost permanent rows will be considerable.

But the problem is also that, however much Blair may wish to hide himself from international affairs, events will not let him do so. By far the biggest challenge facing the Government over the next year - provided the French vote "yes" at the end of this month - is going to be the referendum on the new European constitution.

Hard on the heels of that are Iran's nuclear plans, Turkey's desire to start negotiations to join the EU, the reform of the UN, nuclear deterrence, and international environmental agreement - none of them issues which Britain can duck.

At this moment Blair simply does not have the authority to take the country to a "yes" vote, although the Chancellor, partly because of his obvious Euroscepticism, probably does. Not the least of the many ironies thrown up by Britain's ill-fated decision to join the US invasion of Iraq is the situation where the Prime Minister wants to spend his time only on the minutiae of domestic policy, while his Chancellor is now better placed to handle the great international questions.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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