It is fascinating to watch the Conservative contortions over Europe and Tony Blair. They suggest Europe as an issue remains a huge problem for them.
These are problems David Cameron needs to sort out, because if he were to become Prime Minister, one of the many surprises in store for him is just how much of his diary will have to be dedicated to dealing with and about the EU.
If he had an ounce of strategic nous, as opposed to tons of tactical awareness, he would realise just how much of an advantage it would be to him to have a Brit, and a heavy hitter, in the new position that many of Europe’s leaders would like TB to fill.
His opposition reveals something else about Cameron – that a government led by him would be very much a Thatcher-style ‘One of Us’ government. Churches, charities, pressure groups, voluntary bodies, conciliators, watch out.
It sometimes infuriated the more tribal members of the Blair team the extent to which he sought to promote and support non Labour people – Tories and Liberal – into important positions overseas, not to mention the way he sought to maintain a dialogue with Margaret Thatcher, and benefit from her experience on foreign policy. But he was probably right on both counts.
In his ‘anyone but Blair’ stance, it could be that Cameron just worries having another big British figure around the European scene, much as he sometimes gets irritated having Boris Johnson so prominent on the London scene. But even with this new position, and even with the focus there would be on TB if he were to be appointed, the elected leaders of the big European powers will remain the main players.
What TB could do for Europe is pretty clear. Being a big hitter is only the most obvious. He has proven strengths as a conciliator and negotiator, which doubtless explains the Irish government’s support for him. The smaller countries should consult the smaller parties in the peace process for assurance on how he never overlooked them. He is an energizer and optimist and God knows Europe needs to shake off its introspection and self-doubt. And he is a committed pro-European capable of expressing that support in terms of the benefit to nation states as well as to Europe as a whole. I see that one of the lines against him run by William Hague is that TB was rejected by the UK, so he should not be foisted on us again by the back door. This is a novel, almost comical take on the outcome of the 2005 election, let alone the 2001 poll, when Hague was Tory leader. Methinks revenge (Hague) and jealousy (Cameron) are playing their part amid the politics (right-wing Eurosceptic) here.
But it means for Cameron, he has landed himself in a position where the choice is not TB or nobody – but TB or a Benelux federalist. The idea that a party which seeks to uphold the national interest would rather have a non-Brit with a federalist agenda who dislikes Britain because he thinks TB was not federalist enough just shows the perverse contortions the Tory position on Europe throws up.
The Tories have managed to keep Europe off the radar until recently, but now their odd bedfellows in Eastern Europe, the Lisbon Treaty and the argument over this new position show that this issue never really goes away for them.
I suspect that – deep down – Cameron probably knows he would do well to have a senior Brit in Brussels who by nature is not a party political point-scorer, and would help him negotiate very, very tricky waters for a Tory PM. But he can’t resist the short-term pandering to his Eurosceptic MPs who even now continue to tell people there will be a referendum on Lisbon, and they will bring down the whole shooting match.
One final point about another of the arguments the Tories are running – namely that TB divided Europe over Iraq. It is true that Iraq was a divisive issue but as a matter of fact 21 out of 25 European governments supported the war, with 10 European PMs controversially signing a joint letter castigating the position of President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder. It is curious that when Dutch PM Jan Pieter Balkenende is mentioned as a possible compromise candidate, nobody points out that he supported the war in Iraq. As did Cameron and Hague. Just one more issue where their stance changes day to day, according to whatever political breeze they detect when they stick their fingers in the air. Leadership it ain’t.