I spent a couple of years as Tony Blair’s rep at the Party of European Socialists (PES). It was led then, as now, by former Danish PM Poul-Nyrup Rasmussen. There’s been some kind of law passed in Denmark requiring every Danish PM to be called Rasmussen (they’re on their third one on the trot, and they’ve all been unusually good), but Poul Nyrup was the original. Tony (and therefore UK Labour, and me) had supported Guliano D’Amato of Italy against Poul to lead the PES in succession to Robin Cook. Poul won, and this may have in it’s own way have been significant in Tony Blair’s failure to become EU Overlord yesterday.
The PES suffers from the fact that for most of the time, most of the members are in opposition, so they’re inclined to indulge themselves. On the other hand, my role was to ignore not only self-induldgence but also commonsense. At my last meeting, in Porto, I had to attend a meeting to agree the line the leaders would take at lunch – the biggy of the moment was denying the use of word ‘constitution’ and instead keeping the word ‘treaty’ in the final statement. I spoke about the ‘importance’ of this point (i.e. for UK Labour) and my finely-honed political instincts told me I may have just swung it. Er, no, 1-26. Again! Poul tried to get me to be reasonable (the vote had to be unanimous to I was effectively veto-ing 26 members), as did everyone else, but reason didn’t enter into it. I suddenly understood why it was me who’d been sent.
At lunch, the only PES party leader not present was Tony Blair. John Prescott had turned up, memorably broken his teeth during his televised speech (and, actually, charmed everyone in his utterly inimitable way) and gone off to the dentist. I was asked to attend the leaders lunch, but had turned up in jeans and T-shirt ready for a speedy departure. It was descending into farce. A striking aspect of that Porto session, and others in Brussels as I recall, was the striking denunciation of Tony Blair by the PES-group leader in the European Parliament, Martin Schultz. Frankly, Schultz spoke for the majority of PES member parties – there was a lot of nodding. I’d cunningly avoided eating the regular fare at these events, preferring asbestos – I was flameproof, so I just smiled, but I knew I’d probably pay for it later.
Last week, the turning point in Tony Blair’s hopes of becoming a meaningful leader of Europe came when Gordon Brown was allegedly surprised at the vehemence of the PES opposition to his nominee. The leading spokesman was one Martin Schultz. I’m sure Poul Nyrup Rasmussen would have been nodding sagely (yet pleasantly, fraternally, as he always does) in the background. Yet I can’t imagine Gordon had been so badly briefed as to have been surprised. I’m sure he did his best, but if PES support for Tony’s candidature had ever been a prerequisite then it was never a plan which was going to work. Never in a month of Sontags.