Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Will PM's air miles deliver the political goods?
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The Independent Online

On the morning after last month's general election, Tony Blair promised to devote his third term energies to "the priorities the people have set for us" - the economy, public services, welfare reform, immigration and bringing back "a proper sense of respect".

Yet Mr Blair's past week and his next one will be dominated by foreign affairs, as he prepares for a tricky European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday and the G8 gathering at Gleaneagles on 6 July to 8 July.

As his aides surveyed this week, all they could take comfort from on the domestic front were some headlines about drunks, knives and imitation guns.

It is a truism that Prime Ministers immerse themselves in foreign affairs the longer they stay in office. It can be a dangerous pursuit: James Callaghan got into terrible trouble when he returned to strike-hit Britain from a summit in sunny Guadeloupe, and Margaret Thatcher was swanning it with leaders in Paris during the Tory leadership vote which sealed her downfall.

As Mr Blair prepares to fly tomorrowfor a trip to Russia, Germany, Luxembourg and Paris, will all his air miles deliver any political mileage? That is not why he has put the laudable goals of boosting aid to Africa and tackling climate change at the top of Britain's agenda while it chairs the G8 club of rich nations.

But Mr Blair, having promised to stand down before the next election, wants to show he can still make a difference. "This is not about securing his legacy," one aide told me. "It's about showing there is still a point in him being there."

On the face of it, Mr Blair may have set himself up for a fall at Gleaneagles by fixing over-ambitious targets on Africa and climate change. But my hunch is that he will just about secure enough on Africa to win a broad welcome from the likes of Bob Geldof. That, of course, will require President George Bush to pay up, apparently against his better judgement.

When the two leaders meet eyeball-to-eyeball, British officials believe, Mr Blair can extract concessions that no other leader would achieve. Nor, they suspect, would Gordon Brown. Despite his admiration for America and his scathing diagnosis of Europe's sclerotic economies, the Bush team seem to regard the Chancellor as a dangerous leftie. They think his flagship scheme to front-load aid to Africa, the International Finance Facility, is based on funny money and will have nothing to do with it.

So Mr Blair is deploying his charm to persuade President Bush to help Africa by other means - such as grants for specific projects. When he went to Washington this week, he judged that lecturing the President on America's relatively low level of aid for Africa would achieve nothing. Nor would asking for a crude payback for his support for Iraq cut much ice.

Instead, Mr Blair praised the US for tripling aid to Africa. President Bush lapped this up, and responded warmly. He will arrive at Gleaneagles with a few dollars more in his back pocket, and Mr Blair could yet achieve his target of doubling aid, as his Commission on Africa recommended. That would be no mean achievement and would, his advisers hope, show there was still a point in him "being there", since Mr Brown might not have squeezed so much out out President Bush.

Mr Blair will find it more difficult to make progress on the environment. On that issue, President Bush is the problem, not the solution. He has got some pretty wacky advisers who seem to think that climate change is a conspiracy theory cooked up by scientists in the pay of other governments - including Britain's impressive chief scientist Sir David King.

So Mr Blair tried a different tack at the White House. He used a word the Bush administration understands only too well - oil - by highlighting the threat to supplies (and prices) from the huge expansion of industry and car use in countries like China. It may persuade the US to at least take a seat at the climate change table. But don't expect it to sign up to any firm targets.

In the forthcoming week, Europe will dominate Mr Blair's agenda. The real pressure at the Brussels summit should be on France, after it voted "no" to the proposed EU constitution.

Yet Jacques Chirac is whipping up a storm over Britain's £3.4bn rebate, a timely diversion from his domestic woes which conveniently unites all 24 other EU members against Britain.

However important Mr Blair's aims on the world stage are, I suspect he would much rather be devoting more of his time to the five domestic priorities he outlined on 6 May. But events mean that, for now, he has little option but to plough his foreign furrow.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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