DCSIMG

World stage losing its lustre

TONY Blair loves to strut the world stage and since the world changed on 11 September, 2001, he has shown little appetite to step down to the smaller, grubbier and more complex theatre of domestic politics.

Whenever he finds himself in trouble at home, Mr Blair seems to disappear off on another frantic round of international back-slapping and coercing.

Until now, the tactic has largely worked. Many of those sceptical about Mr Blair’s tough stance over Saddam Hussein still acknowledge that he made his case - whether or not enhanced by questionable claims - with skill and courage.

His determination to bind George Bush into the push for a Middle East peace settlement also deserves plaudits.

However, the drip of negative publicity that has followed each overseas summit since 11 September has turned into something of a torrent.

The Tories now demand, with some justification, to know whether Mr Blair is trying to "run away" from his government’s domestic difficulties.

With Mr Blair now back at Downing Street, clearly weary after trailing from Basra to Warsaw to St Petersburg and finally to Evian in France (with weapons of mass destruction following him all the way), his critics are asking why he cannot apply to domestic problems such passion as he uses to address big international issues.

Some are asking, with even louder voices, why exactly Mr Blair is so keen to play the world statesman when his government is entering a time of unparalleled crisis?

Before his latest diplomatic mission, the answer would have been simple - Mr Blair strides the world stage with a certain moral authority because of the clarity of his support for the US following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

He has never enjoyed such a sure foot at home. Indeed, the disdain in which he believes he is held in Scotland encourages Mr Blair - an old Fettesian - to travel north of the Border only when he really must.

The largest rebellion for several decades of 121 Labour MPs in the Commons tarnished his policy on Iraq. More than 100 Labour members have signed a motion opposing the moves to set up self-governing foundation hospitals in England, a flagship Blair policy.

The economy is on the slide and deep tensions between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, his Chancellor, are set to be laid bare at the final Cabinet meeting before the government finally gives its decision on the european single currency.

Today, that meeting is only 24 hours away.

Whitehall is consumed with two international issues, while the impression grows that domestic policy on schools, crime and health is being allowed to slip.

Rightly or wrongly, the Prime Minister’s passion for international affairs makes his concern for domestic issues appear fleeting.

It removes him from much day-to-day contact with the Labour movement and even from much contact with certain of his Cabinet colleagues. Such a policy can be dangerous - Mr Brown’s current game plan illustrates this point.

As is usual at times of non-economic crisis, the Chancellor has said nothing and manoeuvred himself into a position where he hopes he won’t get damaged if things go wrong.

Whatever the gravity of international affairs, the political realities that affect Mr Blair’s power base will not go away.

In Evian, the Prime Minister appeared a diminished figure and looked strangely ill at ease in the customary photographic line-up to record the summit for posterity.

Perhaps the old magic has gone. Or at the very least it has dulled a little.

His air miles may suffer, but maybe it’s time for Mr Blair to rein in the role that he forged for himself as British Prime Minister-cum-world statesman to concentrate on domestic problems rather than seeking greater glory abroad.

 
 
 

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