Andrew Grice: Blair beaten, but a coup for Brown nonetheless

Inside Politics

Saturday 21 November 2009 01:00

Tony Blair knew the game was up a week ago. He admitted it in telephone calls to Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. It was clear that the job described as "President of Europe" was going to be nothing of the sort. After eight years of navel-gazing, the European Union had finally decided to appoint ... well, someone to chair meetings of its 27 leaders. Big deal.

Mr Blair would have loved to become a powerful figurehead for Europe on the world stage. But he had too many enemies, not least among EU leaders who did not want to be eclipsed by a star.

His inevitable defeat created yet another headache for Gordon Brown. He had campaigned publicly for his predecessor to land the President's job created by the Treaty of Lisbon. With Thursday night's EU summit looming, Mr Brown could see the headlines coming: "Brown defeated as Blair snubbed." He was desperate to avoid them.

The Prime Minister and his advisers pondered how to pull something out of the fire. He alighted on a diversionary tactic: the second new post to be filled at the Brussels summit – the "EU foreign minister". If that could be won by a "Brit" he might even get some good headlines.

The alternative was to pitch for a key economic post on the European Commission, whose new team will be chosen soon. But that wouldn't solve Mr Brown's immediate problem: the headlines after Thursday's summit. So he stuck stubbornly to his support for Mr Blair, even though he knew it was a lost cause, and refused to disclose his Plan B to Britain's EU partners before they met.

It was not, as Downing Street claimed, a case of the Prime Minister proposing Baroness (Cathy) Ashton of Upholland, the little-known EU Trade Commissioner, as "foreign minister". To have any chance of landing the post for a Briton, Mr Brown needed the support of the Party of European Socialists – which, under a classic EU trade-off, was "given" the foreign job because the dominant centre-right European People's Party group had bagged the President's one. The Socialists' pre-meeting ahead of the summit discussed several names including three "Brits" – Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary, Lady Ashton and Lord Mandelson. The Business Secretary's name was the most intriguing one on the list. Like the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, he had publicly ruled himself out of the EU foreign job. But, it seems Lord Mandelson had a last-minute wobble when politicians from other member states urged him to throw his hat into the ring. Surprisingly, he was prepared to consider it, even though the vacancy had arisen six months too soon. Taking it up would have prevented him running Labour's general election campaign, the final act of his reconciliation with Mr Brown after their long feud.

In the end, Mr Brown and Lord Mandelson were spared an agonising decision. There was a strong desire at the Socialists' meeting for a woman and therefore a consensus – if not unanimous support – for Lady Ashton, despite her being an unknown quantity in her own country, let alone on the world stage.

French and German leaders seem to have been surprised by Lady Ashton's nomination but it caused them no offence and meant the EU summit could avoid deadlock. More importantly, Mr Brown and others had to swallow their doubts about the centre-right nominee for President, the nondescript Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy.

Mr Brown didn't mind that, even though for weeks his allies have been referring to the Belgian premier as "Rumpy Pumpy" and "Rumpelstiltskin". Against the odds, Mr Brown had conjured up a positive headline: top EU job for British woman.

Lady Ashton seemed rather bemused by all the attention. All week she had not known whether she would even keep her job on the Commission; if Mr Hoon or Lord Mandelson had won the Socialists' backing, she would have lost her post, since Britain has only one commissioner.

Suddenly, the unassuming former Leader of the Lords was being handed a huge bunch of flowers and being kissed and hugged by Europe's most powerful men in suits. She was like a tiny scrum half, in danger of being crushed by a moving scrum of 30 TV cameramen and photographers. Security men tried to shield her as the scrum crashed into a press table.

The unexpected drama created a flurry of excitement on Thursday night. Yesterday, the people of Brussels awoke to proud headlines in their newspapers declaring that their Prime Minister was now President of Europe. "Yes he can!" one declared. But will President Obama pick up the phone to him? I doubt it very much.

Indeed, there was a morning-after feeling for some EU diplomats yesterday. The doubters wondered aloud how Europe, desperate to convert the paper strength of its 500 million citizens to clout on a global stage dominated by the US and China, managed to end up with the odd couple of Van Rompuy and Ashton.

There is even confusion in Brussels itself about who will "speak for Europe" on global issues – Mr Van Rompuy, Lady Ashton or Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission President. If they are confused, pity the rest of the world.

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