Steve Richards: Tony Blair aims to be the heroic leader of modern Europe - but don't hail him just yet

His Cabinet is in danger of becoming more Eurosceptic than the one led by John Major
Click to follow

Only a few weeks ago, Tony Blair was preparing to put the case for Europe to a sceptical British electorate and to face the onslaught of an even more hostile media. Now, Mr Blair heads for Brussels where he will put the case for Britain's view of Europe to a sceptical European parliament with the near unanimous approval of the British media.

The "No" votes in France and Holland, combined with the failure to reach a budget deal at last week's summit, is now viewed across Britain's previously wide political divide as "an opportunity". Tory Eurosceptics and pro-European Labour MPs nod their heads simultaneously: Britain's moment has come. Conveniently purged from recent history is the awkward fact that the UK government was planning to campaign for a "Yes" vote in a referendum here and that Mr Blair once aspired passionately to take Britain into the euro.

Instead, Mr Blair will deliver today what some of his allies describe as his "magnum opus" on Europe, his vision for the future. In doing so, he finds himself in a similar context to Mrs Thatcher when she delivered her epoch defining Bruges speech in 1988. In that speech, Mrs Thatcher attacked the bureaucrats from Brussels threatening her liberal economic revolution in Britain. Jacques Delors had recently received a rapturous reception at the TUC after outlining his prospectus for a "social Europe". In her Bruges address, Mrs Thatcher railed against social Europe while arguing for a looser Union that was more closely connected to the voters.

The contextual echoes do not mean that Mr Blair is setting out to imitate Mrs Thatcher. As I wrote last week, she relished her isolation in Europe whereas Mr Blair seeks allies and consensus. When Mr Blair faces an apparently insuperable challenge, he nearly always envisages a third way through. In relation to the current crisis, he has stated that Britain is prepared to make a bigger financial contribution to the EU's budget as long as the money is constructively spent. He is quite explicit that he does not want money from the poorer countries of Eastern Europe.

I am told that Mr Blair has given John Prescott the new task of calming the nerves of the new EU members, in particular in Poland where the Deputy Prime Minister has developed good relations. Allies of Mr Prescott compare this role with his mediating function in the restive Labour Party: Don't worry that you have not got a budget deal and that your farmers will lose a subsidy, Tony is on your side!

Mr Blair attempts to show he is on Europe's side on other fronts. He acknowledges the importance of the social dimension in Europe, placing emphasis on investment in training, education and research to equip Europe for the global market. Unlike many Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party, he regards Europe as more than a market place and seeks co-operation on a range of matters from defence to fighting crime and terrorism. Mrs Thatcher had a vision that implied Britain would do very well out of Europe, thank you very much. Mr Blair recognises that Britain can only flourish in a strong EU.

But this does not mean that Mr Blair will succeed in implementing his reforms. I am instinctively wary when Mr Blair is being cheered on by a vast coalition of support in the British media and the Commons. This has happened many times before, not least in the months following 11 September when nothing seemed beyond Mr Blair's diplomatic grasp. Fleetingly, it seemed as if even the likes of Syria would become new allies in the "war against terrorism" until it became clear that matters were viewed differently in Syria itself. Similarly, in the early build-up to the war against Iraq Mr Blair was widely admired across the political spectrum as he sought the support of the UN and the big players in the EU. The problems began when the UN and the majority in the EU were not willing to give their support.

Only 18 months ago, I was briefed at the highest level in government that a new triple alliance of Britain, France and Germany, working closely together, would shape the European Union. Mr Blair spelt it out publicly at one of his Downing Street press conferences: "To be counter-intuitive for a moment, I would argue that relations between Britain, France and Germany are better than they have been for many years." He was being more counter-intuitive than he realised.

There are many obstacles in the way of Mr Blair's latest vision. President Chirac, although derided by the French media and burdened by humiliatingly low ratings in the polls, will be around for another couple of years. He has the power to veto budget proposals, as Britain vetoed the proposals at last week's summit. The likely victors of this autumn's election in Germany, the CDU, have strong support from farmers and are unlikely to make a reduction in their subsidies a key election pledge. More broadly, as Mr Blair pointed out on Monday in the Commons, the "No" votes in the referendums were not an endorsement of the British position and in many ways were a direct challenge to it.

There are dangers that Mr Blair assumes the role of heroic leader of a modern Europe before the rest of Europe is ready to respond to his heroism. It would not be the first time that Mr Blair is hailed at the beginning of a venture rather than at the end.

His latest venture is made more precarious by the domestic context. Mr Blair's Cabinet is in danger of becoming more Eurosceptic than the one led by John Major. One of the ironies of the Major era is that a poisonous Euroscepticism thrived in his party at a time when he was surrounded by passionate pro-Europeans. His most influential ministers were Douglas Hurd, Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten.

In the current crisis, Mr Blair's most senior ministers are Jack Straw, who can hardly contain his excitement, and Gordon Brown who has yet to expand on his persistent claim that he is a pro-European. There has been very little debate on Europe in the Cabinet or the Labour Party since 1997. It would not take very much for the Government's ill-defined pro-European position to lapse into parochial hostility.

Mr Blair is right to highlight the need for sweeping reforms, but he needs to avoid even a hint of triumphalist posturing in advance of any triumph. This is a thorny path in which progress will be slow and involve many compromises. Reassuringly, senior government insiders insist that they are seeking to start a debate in Europe rather than implement a revolution in six months. They claim to recognise the challenges ahead. Mr Blair should note what happened to the last prime minister who delivered a vision at the heart of Europe. Mrs Thatcher's Bruges speech brought about no changes to the European Union, but transformed her party in a way that proved almost fatal.