Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blair presidency would be gift-horse to the Tories

The tide already seems to be going out on the Blair bid for the European presidency, but were it to happen, it might actually help David Cameron. Here's today's Journal column.

There are many reasons why William Hague was not a successful leader of the Conservative Party – the fact that he had the bad luck to come up against Tony Blair at the height of his powers being perhaps the most significant.

But one thing no-one has ever doubted about Mr Hague is his wit, a weapon he has regularly deployed to devastating effect at the expense of his political opponents.

Back in 1998, his savage deconstruction of the government’s “annual report” reduced the Commons to tears of mirth, and accurately predicted New Labour’s journey “from fascination to admiration to disillusion to contempt.”

More recently, he conjured up an equally hilarious image of Gordon Brown’s ultimate nightmare – having to greet Mr Blair’s EU motorcade in Downing Street and being forced through gritted teeth to utter the words: “Welcome, Mr President.”

Cue loud laughter on both sides of the Chamber – except that, on the question of whether Mr Blair should assume the presidency of the European Council, Mr Hague was possibly being a trifle unfair on the Prime Minister.

For in a bizarre piece of role reversal, it is Mr Brown who is supporting the man he schemed and plotted to destroy for ten long years, while Tory leader David Cameron, the self-proclaimed “heir to Blair,” is fighting desperately to block it.

Mr Cameron’s motives are perhaps the easiest to fathom. As he said this week, he doesn’t want an EU president anyway, and he certainly doesn’t want one as powerful and persuasive as the former Prime Minister.

The Tory leader may have copied much of Mr Blair’s style and many of his policies - but that doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to have to deal with the man at the international negotiating tables.

Mr Brown’s attitude, however, is possibly more ambivalent. On the face of it, he is probably telling the truth when he says the government is supporting Mr Blair’s candidature on the grounds that it would be “good for Britain.”

In so doing, he is also hoping to secure the kind of short-term tactical advantage over the Tories that Mr Brown loves to calibrate - by making it appear as if they are acting against the national interest.

But there is also the possibility that Brown backing Blair for EU president is part of some kind of Blairite-Brownite non-aggression pact under which one side dare not move against the other.

If Mr Brown’s people were to be caught briefing against a Blair presidency, Mr Blair’s might just feel tempted to start briefing that it’s time the Labour Party had a new leader.

So should Sedgefield’s one-time MP get the job? Well, the debate in the end really boils down to the question of whether his undoubted leadership qualities trump his flawed record.

Yes, he would give Europe a much stronger voice on the world stage, and, in a world that is too often dominated by the US, Russia and China, that would surely be no bad thing.

But many British voters find themselves unable to overlook the fact that, as Prime Minister, he led the country into a war which most now agree was fought on a false prospectus.

And as the former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen said this week: “Like contempt of court, contempt of parliament should always be a disqualification for holding high office.”

Will he get the job? The signs were looking less than positive yesterday, with European socialist leaders refusing to endorse his candidature and deciding instead to convene a panel to consider names.

Furthermore, the EU has a history of making lowest common denominator appointments to its most senior roles, which is why becoming Prime Minister of Luxembourg is a better career move than it might at first appear.

But either way, if Messrs Cameron and Hague really think that President Blair is somehow going to get us all sold on the idea of European integration, they are surely worrying unnecessarily.

Is a discredited former leader re-emerging in a powerful unelected role really likely to endear the EU to an already sceptical British public? I think not.

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Robert said...

I think Blairs not the man he was , and I think the EU is worried that Iraq will come back to dirty Blair.

skipper said...

Agree with all of this well written article. Blair is potentially the person to enable the EU to punchn its weight politically- though some say this particular 'presidency' does not offer much more than a chairman's role to its incumbent. But the question must now be academic as Sarkozy has backed off and Merkel, it seems is not willing to see the post go to a country not in the euro-zone, eurosceptic in majority opinion and likely to have a PM in 2010 outside the 'mainstream' of EU thinking. And that's even before you factor in Iraq...

Anonymous said...

'The Tory leader may have copied much of Mr Blair’s style and many of his policies'

Which policies did you have in mind?

angry voter

The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Great article Paul, thanks. Just one question: do you think it's possible that one reason why Cameron is worried about Blair as a potential EU president is that his enraged backbenchers might, after the election, force a nuclear "in or out" referendum - something he does not want but the Lisbon Treaty, by a priceless irony, would make possible?

Robert said...

It looks like the EU has more sense then I though it did.