Steve Richards: Blair is the only man for this job

As PM he never tired of Europe even if his pragmatism led him towards Washington

Friday 30 October 2009 01:00

Tony Blair's bid to be president of the European Council is one of those glorious stories that touch every highly charged emotion in British politics. The glory is heightened by the fact that each layer of the drama is misunderstood, from the suitability of Blair's qualifications to the likely reaction of Gordon Brown to facing "President Blair".

Those who argue passionately that Blair is disqualified for the post do so on the basis of a selective take on his performance as prime minister. This is the equivalent of deciding that Alex Ferguson would not be a good manager of a football club because of his record as a player in certain key matches. When Blair was prime minister he acted in the way he did because he was obsessed with winning elections, not an ignoble obsession for a party leader, although the objective led him to become a figure of theatrical caution rather than a challenger of orthodoxy.

For reasons of extreme insecurity and inexperience rather than overwhelming arrogance he took the basic view that the only way Labour could win in conservative England was to act conservatively. Having made a judgement for tactical reasons, he came to believe in the policies that arose from it with a conveniently principled passion that bordered on the sincere. Such a sequence will not apply if he gets the presidency. He will not be standing for election in conservative England. On the contrary he will be speaking for an army of leaders who will have won elections on their own.

The sequence of expedient judgement and subsequent conviction applied in Blair's attitude to Iraq, the main reason why critics claim he is disqualified for the new job. As a Labour leader haunted by his party's election defeats in the 1980s when it was perceived as "soft" on defence and anti-American, Blair chose to be the strongest ally of President Bush. His sincerity about the need to go to war followed that defensive pragmatic judgement. It led him to a series of traps from which he has not escaped, as the furore over his presidential aspirations demonstrate.

Like this newspaper, I was opposed to the war from the outset in contrast to a lot of the more strident critics now who were praising Blair for his boldness at the time. They could not have been more wrong then. Blair was being weak in taking what he regarded as the least risky course in the build up to Iraq. But all of this has no relevance in relation to the job of president.

That is partly because France and Germany did not stop the war in spite of their opposition. Chirac and Schroeder were impotent opponents. If Blair had joined them it would have made no difference. He would have been an important opponent too. Bush was determined to invade Iraq and would have done so if Britain had signed up with Germany and France.

If there had been a president of Europe then, and Blair had been the occupant, he would not have been able to support the conflict and would probably have not been inclined to do so. His role would have been to speak for a divided EU and his calculations would have been totally different from those that drove him timidly into the arms of President Bush as a Labour prime minister fearful of losing the support of Middle England and Rupert Murdoch's newspapers.

The only relevant questions now are whether Blair has the qualifications for this particular post and, more parochially, whether his appointment would be beneficial to Britain. The answers are straightforward.

As prime minister, Blair never tired of Europe even if his extreme pragmatism led him towards Washington. His stamina was unprecedented. Ted Heath might have shown the same tirelessness but had less than a year as prime minister when Britain was in Europe. Harold Wilson soon tired of Europe. Jim Callaghan was equivocal. Margaret Thatcher began as a supporter but famously turned. John Major was all over the place.

Blair was always up for the endless nocturnal summits and the negotiations that preceded them. He knew they were unavoidable and realised that the rewards were great in a world defined by big powers and not a maze of little ones. In Britain that amounts to a pro-European record of some significance even if the results were minimal.

As David Miliband has pointed out the closer parallel with Blair's prime ministerial record is not Iraq, but the Northern Ireland peace negotiations. If he takes the job Blair would be signing up to the equivalent of a permanent Northern Ireland peace negotiation, not the most glamorous job in the world and one in which fresh air will play little part.

Such a prospect highlights another myth about this saga. There is a widespread assumption that Gordon Brown is jealous that his old rival might become a president as he struggles to remain Prime Minister. Brown is worried about the political fallout of a Blair presidency as Euro-sceptics scream about the injustice. But he will not be tormented by the possibility that Blair has landed a dream job as he loses his.

For Brown the job would be a nightmare. When he was Chancellor he could barely last 10 minutes at a meeting of finance ministers. The idea of being in a never ending negotiation in Brussels would make him even more miserable than he is at the moment.

Instead David Cameron has cause for more concern. Stylistically Cameron plays the part of Blair, although not so well. He must be looking forward to prime ministerial press conferences where he makes the self-deprecating jokes and the photo calls at Chequers where he relaxes in jeans and an open necked shirt. Suddenly he faces the prospect of the original model returning in a high profile role and implicitly challenging him over the one policy area where the two of them have a fundamental disagreement: Europe.

Those in Britain who despair about the prospect of another Tory government battling it out over Europe and the signals it sends to other countries about the state of Britain should keep their fingers crossed that Blair secures the post. From the external perspective, evidently Europe cannot do better and could do a lot worse.

Blair is the obvious choice for president which means he probably does not have a chance.

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