The putative candidacy of Tony Blair for the not-yet existence position of President of the European Union has raised predictable controversies across the continent.
Since stepping down as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his legacy has been confused, giving supporters and opponents evidence as to his un/suitability for the job. His work as Middle East peace envoy, while barely visible, counts in his favour; but attempts to bring peace to the region juxtapose uncomfortably with his having wrought war upon Iraq. His communication skills and contacts are renown; but even federalists intend the Presidency to be an administrative, detail driven post, to which he is not entirely suitable. Some consider Blair to have been an ardent Europhile, but he failed to bring the UK into the single currency or make a proper attempt to convince the softly eurosceptic British public of the merits of the European Union.
For these reasons, and others, European leaders, such as France's Nicolas Sarkozy and the recently re-elected Angela Merkel of Germany, take diametrically opposing views of Blair's suitability as President. European leaders disagreeing? Hardly surprising.
What has been surprising has been the support of Gordon Brown, now Prime Minister but for years Blair's Chancellor and heir apparent. The story of their tumultuous partnership has been told many times, with lurid descriptions of the power struggles between them, and the almost Kremlinological analyses of every minor government reshuffle. The tale that possibly best sums up their relationship was the (thoroughly denied) accusation that Blair's wife, Cherie, was overheard calling Brown a "liar" when he told the Labour party annual conference that "It has been a privilege for me to work with and for the most successful ever Labour leader and Prime Minister." Ironically enough, earlier that month Brown's allies had attempted an unsuccessful coup to force Blair to hand over the reins of power.
After a decade attempting to come out from behind Blair's shadow, why does Brown now support Blair's elevation to the leadership of Europe? Until officially entering 10 Downing Street himself [pedants will recall that Brown had unofficially lived in 10 Downing Street while still Chancellor, allowing the Blair's to live in the larger flat next door] he was unhappy being master of domestic affairs while Blair dealt with foreign policy, so why would he now - at a time when EU powers are expanding - want his old rival in a relatively similar position, rather than an obscure Flemish-speaking politician?
The answer would appear to lie in both confidence and vulnerability. Brown may not want to back Blair's candidacy, but a failure to explicitly back him would be interpreted as opposition. Progressive Labour politicians have taken many opportunities to attack Brown's stewardship on matters of policy, personality and strategy; a slight to their leader would likely prompt another fusillade. This in itself would not force Brown from office, but the descent of the party into civil war would destroy any final vestige of electability Labour might still have. Put simply, Brown is supporting Blair in the belief that this will help him remain Prime Minister past 2010, or at least that opposing Blair would ruin such chances. Certainly, two core members of his election team, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, have been Blair allies since their days on the opposition benches.
Politics has always been about backroom deals and traded support, but the current situation is too ironic for words. A Prime Minister, unelected to the post by the nation, is attempting to extend his tenure by supporting a former rival to another unelected post. No great victory for democracy there.