Six years into the Thatcher government, and there was no question about who the Prime Minister was, what she stood for and where she was going. There was already a substantial body of achievement. Not so Tony Blair. Halfway through his second term he remains a rudderless and curiously negligible figure. If he vanished one morning in a puff of smoke, an outcome that can by no means be ruled out, he would leave very little behind. This week’s warning from Jack Straw that Britain is ready to veto the new European constitution admirably demonstrates the fleeting, insubstantial quality of so many of the Prime Minister’s political enthusiasms.
The Foreign Secretary’s defiant briefing contradicts everything Tony Blair has said. Back in May the Prime Minister informed Iain Duncan Smith that the constitution was ‘necessary’ for the accession of new member states. Now Jack Straw suggests it could be dropped. Till this week the government has insisted that the constitution was a ‘tidying- up exercise’. Now Jack Straw is adamant that since great issues of principle are at stake, Britain may be forced to deploy the veto.
But the Foreign Secretary’s intervention does not simply make a nonsense of government policy. Far more important, it shatters the grand European strategy set out by Tony Blair in 1997 and reaffirmed on numerous occasions since. It has been Tony Blair’s central contention that he will break the barriers that have bedevilled all post-Imperial politicians and establish Britain securely at the heart of Europe. It was axiomatic that the Prime Minister would work from within, and never resort to the threats and ultimatums deployed by the Major and Thatcher governments from the sidelines.
The outbreak of bombast from Jack Straw — allied with Gordon Brown’s openly Eurosceptic speech at the CBI — shows that the Blair government has turned its back on emollient pro-Europeanism. Instead it has embraced the very Eurosceptic tactics of which, until recently, it has been utterly scornful. This is an astonishing about-turn. It is as if Margaret Thatcher suddenly announced that she had decided she was wrong about trade-union reform.
Three reasons lie behind this dramatic change of strategy. The first is personal to Tony Blair himself, and has been building up for a number of years. Close colleagues of the Prime Minister have noted for some time that he does not enjoy European summits. Instead of throwing himself into the spirit of things, he stands aside. He is visibly resentful of the way it is run as a German/French show, and that he is just a member of the supporting cast. He is often the last to arrive and first to leave.
Close observers say that the Prime Minister prefers to go to Washington, where he is no longer of indeterminate status, just one among a score of national leaders. Instead he is constantly assured that he enjoys a privileged relationship with the US President, is greatly f