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

Wed, Jun 22, 2005 - Page 9

All around Europe, time lies in wait, the greatest enemy of great men. No easy treaty defies the glum reaper.

One day soon, time (and disillusionment) will dispose of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. In two years or so, time will sweep French President Jacques Chirac into oblivion. Time laps around Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ankles already.

Any true chance of coming change depends crucially on this change of cast: fresh faces, fresh attitudes, fresh futures. All British Prime Minister Tony Blair's talk of building a new Europe in New Labour's image has a ticking clock as travelling companion. And yet, of course, there's an irony here. For time is Blair's foe, too.

What can the unreformed president of an unreformed, infinitely lugubrious European council do to resolve a crisis and begin the revolutionary switches of strategy that our prime minister think so vital? Not much, to be honest, once the fine words are stripped away.

Six months is a pitifully short time in EU politics. You've barely started before you've finished. You don't stand a prayer of drafting, let alone passing, the legislation that underpins reform.

The best you can do is steer, fudge and fix. Reform the dreaded Common Agricultural Policy once and for all by Christmas? Pigs may fly into a Strasbourg sausage factory. The need for change and the pace of that change run wholly out of sync.

So when Blair talks about constructing a new project that finds a new place in the world, what odds does he face? Huge ones. That ticking clock again.

One more "full" -- or fullish -- term, and then it's over. One more heave before handing over to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. A month ago, Blair was supposed to lose the referendum next year and then push off. Too many rowdy Labour backbenchers wanted him gone. Now, with no treaty vote left to lose, he's lost even that rationale for hanging on. The big crusade launched at midnight last Friday in Brussels comes with sell-by date attached. Chirac may outlast him yet.

That, when you see Blair bouncing up and down airplane steps, is a physical nonsense. Blair, the odd heart murmur aside, is a young 52 -- younger than US President George W. Bush or Brown, never mind the greyer heads of Europe.

Maybe eight years in the spotlight (with added Iraq) have worn out some of his electoral welcome, but little of that shows on overseas stages. Around mainland Europe, they still see him, emotionally, as in his pomp. From Kuala Lumpur to Washington the Blair writ continues to run.

So, thank you and good night ... this year, next year, sometime very soon. What does he do next? (The old Clinton problem.) Write a tell-a-bit autobiography -- sold to Rupert Murdoch for squillions -- to pay off his mortgage? Send the wife out to do a proper job? Find an oil company in need of a non-executive chairman? The possibilities, in truth, are a dying fall, an anti-climax that chucks aside too much experience and ability. Worse, they needlessly truncate the challenges of the past few weeks.

Blair and Brown have their mission for Africa. And nobody thinks that a weekend at Gleneagles or a pop concert in the park will see that long, desperate march out of poverty home to triumphant conclusion. Blair and Brown have their mission for Europe (one where Brown's economic policies -- neither French nor Republican American -- stand at the heart of progress). But, one day quite soon, Brown will have to play missionary all alone. That's the plan and the tacit pact.

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.