Alan Watkins: Mr Blair's legacy of flatulent rhetoric

The former prime minister has no record of achievement to commend him as first president of Europe
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The Independent Online

Mr Tony Blair has done immeasurably more harm than Mr Nick Griffin ever has. He has started at least five wars, at the last count. But Mr Griffin is hooted in the streets, or, at any rate, on Question Time; whereas Mr Blair is acclaimed as the potential saviour of Europe.

In the past few days, to be sure, the possibility of Mr Blair's becoming the first president of Europe is more remote. That will not deter the political speculators. It is (to adopt Mr Alastair Campbell's test for political news stories) a good 11-day story.

I cannot remember any equivalent fuss when Roy Jenkins became president of the European Commission in 1977. Several snooty commentators remarked at the time that Jenkins was "the first Englishman to become president of the commission". He was, of course, Welsh, from Abersychan, near Pontypool, I do not think Roy minded much, either way.

In 1976, when James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson, Jenkins wanted to become Foreign Secretary. Callaghan appointed Jenkins's friend and rival Anthony Crosland to the Foreign Office instead, saying that he saw no future for Jenkins either at the Foreign Office, or, for that matter, in the Labour Party.

Jenkins said that there was a possibility of a big job in Europe. Callaghan said: "Take it, take it," or words to that effect. And in 1981, Jenkins went on to become a joint founder of the Social Democratic Party. Before that he had, with the then German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, established the European Monetary System.

Mr Blair has no comparable record of achievement. Indeed, Mr Blair's record is one of flatulent rhetoric – Britain "at the heart of Europe" – and the rest of it tempered by unfulfilled prophecies.

Throughout his period of office, Mr Blair's course has been the resultant of three forces: Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, Mr Gordon Brown and Mr George Bush.

It was one thing for the young war criminal to support Mr Bush, as Mr Blair did; quite another to blackguard Mr Jacques Chirac, as Mr Blair also did. But then, a great principle of Foreign Office diplomacy is: when in doubt turn on the French.

In 2003, the principle was as much in evidence in Whitehall as it was in Washington. For some reason the Germans have always got off comparatively lightly in Anglo-American circles which respect might before right. Well, the Germans and the French are certainly ganging up on Mr Blair, and serve him right.

Mr Blair's policy towards Europe – and, having voted no in the 1975 referendum, I am no Euro-fanatic – has consisted of taking one step forward and three steps back. He perfected the technique of saying to his business associate: "Naturally, I would readily follow the course you suggest. There would be nothing I should like better. But I'm afraid my partner would not allow it." The partner, or associate, was Mr Brown.

Without access to all the sources, it is difficult to say whether Mr Blair made use of Mr Brown to justify a course of action which Mr Blair had decided to follow in any event. Some of us grew heartily sick of the "five conditions" which Mr Brown used to trot out for joining the euro.

They were all of varying degrees

of vagueness; they were largely matters of opinion about the present, or of prediction about the future. As objective tests, they were valueless. Yet, year after year, Mr Brown droned on, obediently echoed by Mr Blair.

Behind both of them stood the saturnine figure of Mr Murdoch. I once saw him processing at a memorial service (it was at St Paul's Cathedral, following the death in 1985 of the former editor of The Times, Charles Douglas-Home). He gave a convincing impersonation of the Prince of Darkness. Holding a referendum or not joining the euro: it was much the same to Mr Murdoch. Mr Blair and Mr Brown did not hesitate to try to do his bidding to the best of their ability.

In fact no referendum was ever held, whether about the euro, the new constitution or Europe generally. Proposals came and went. Indeed it is a tribute to Mr Blair's political skills that he succeeded in embarrassing the Conservative opposition more than he did the government of which he was the head.

The story of Mr Blair and Europe, such as it may turn out to be, is an illustration of the "Brits on Broadway" phenomenon. It happens every six months or so, I suppose. A show or a play is taken to New York and proves an unexpected success. The presence of a big star helps, though if none is available the article or review can be adjusted accordingly, on the line of "Unknown triumphs on Broadway".

Mr Blair is certainly known. He might become known to a tribunal at the Hague. But that seems unlikely at the moment. The London papers have taken up Mr Blair because he is famous, he is glamorous, and he is British. Poor Mr Brown does not stand a chance.

If Ms Harriet Harman, say, were to wave a magic wand, and intone "bring back Tony", I do not suppose she would be able to work the spell, even if she wanted to. But others in the parliamentary party might like to try. It is not going to happen. But the return of Mr Blair might seriously alarm Mr David Cameron.

He has said that he does not want to see Mr Blair as president of Europe. He might do worse. Mr Cameron has a fairly consistent record of being sceptical on Europe. Encouraged, or not dissuaded, by Mr William Hague, he has surrounded himself with a whole bakery of fruitcakes from Eastern Europe in a separate Conservative grouping. If Mr Cameron becomes prime minister, he is going to need all the friends he can get, including Mr Blair.

It is extraordinary, when you come to think about it, that the papers for the past few weeks have been full of speculation about Mr Blair, and very little about Mr Cameron. He makes a proposal which, on examination, turns out not to be a firm proposal at all. Then, a week or so later, it all dissolves.

The all-women shortlist was a case in point. It was not altogether clear (to me, anyway) whether Mr Cameron was proposing these lists. Was he? Or was he not? It has filtered through – again, it is not quite clear by what means – that Mr Cameron has come down against.

There are those who conclude that Mr Cameron is possessed of tremendous political skills, worthy even of Mr Blair himself. I think, rather, that the voters will consider that Mr Cameron does not know his own mind. But then, neither does Mr Brown. Hardly a week goes by when the Government does not reverse or modify some policy or other.

This week sees the latest instalment of the expenses serial. Above it all soars Mr Blair, travelling all the globe, now getting into aeroplanes, now getting out of them. In the meantime he has built up a much-envied collection of fine old English banknotes. He got out just in time.