Wed, Jun 22, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Could Blair shift to foreign minister?

Six months is a very short time -- so what can can the British leader do to achieve his goals?

By Peter Preston  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

At which point, quite suddenly, you begin to feel a sense of foolish, futile waste. The essential British political story of the past eight years, to be clear, has revolved around Blair and Brown.

Most months, that story has come with an acrid edge and a glower. But we're foolish now, towards the end, if we don't stand back and acknowledge equally that the two of them -- rubbing together -- have also brought much more to the table than either could contrive singly: a prime minister running everything but the economy, and a finance minister taking that strain for the general good.

In logic then, a politically silly question crops up. Why does Blair need to "retire?" Why doesn't he become part of the ultimate job swap? Prime Minister Brown and Foreign Secretary Blair?

Now, of course, that whole notion does indeed seem pretty daffy, at first and at second sight. Surely Gordon wouldn't wear it; surely Tony would snort with derision? But somehow, though I know all the grim realities, a second-phase question nags away.

If time -- in Europe, in Africa -- is the enemy, why are we calling "time" so heedlessly fast? The really grim reality is that very little can be achieved on either front before Blair gives up, and that making progress thereafter -- from Nairobi to Brussels -- will be made no easier by his going. The obvious reality is that tackling European reform, from rebates to enlargement to inevitable change, looks a back-breaking task that will need presence, concentration and determination over years (not some cursory appendage to Brown's pending premiership). The blinding reality is that the past few weeks have made the Foreign Office the place that every mover and shaker should want to be.

Still impossible? Ask the modern shade of Alec Douglas-Home, prime minister of Britain, then Ted Heath's foreign secretary for four more fruitful years of public service. There is always time, if you choose to make it, in the land of time enough.

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