By Jackie Ashley (THE GUARDIAN, 12/02/07):
There is something mysterious about Tony Blair just now. Hostility to him over the cash-for-peerages investigation, Iraq and much else does not abate. In interviews he’s constantly asked when he’s going to leave. The polls are terrible. He should be grey, worn down, despairing. Yet he seems almost perky. He ought to have given up on his “legacy” but he doesn’t seem to have done. It is as if he knows something we don’t.
Well, he does. There is a far-advanced, detailed plan for his life after Downing Street, which he hopes will keep him in the spotlight and save his reputation. It has been quietly worked on for 18 months. Key meetings this very week will take it forward. But what, you may ask, is so momentous that it has the faintest chance of blurring, if not eradicating, the appalling and bloody disaster that has been Iraq? What is bigger than that? Africa? Northern Ireland?No, the answer is climate change. Blair has told friends he will embark on a mission to save the world from global warming. Some of those close to Blair have urged him to devote his time to earning huge sums of money making speeches and sitting on corporate boards. But he has decided instead to use his personal contacts, his reputation in America, his undoubted energy and his experience in compromise-broking to help bring world leaders to “Kyoto 2”, the carbon emission treaty needed to replace the partial and deeply flawed first attempt, which runs out in five years’ time. It will be “Tony saves the world”.
The plan goes back to July 2005 at the Gleneagles G8 summit. There, amid the chaos of the London bombings and the grand declarations, Blair spotted a chance for a new diplomatic crusade. It was obviously necessary to bring the Americans on board, and friends say the prime minister had long realised this would be a post-Bush project. But just as important was gaining the support of the high-emitting fast-developing nations. The problem is well known: the US won’t agree to anything that restricts its competitiveness while allowing the new economic powers such as China and India to leap ahead; while the latter insist that they must be allowed the same freedom to develop that the west enjoyed.
Blair saw an opportunity to broker a deal. A new group, Globe, was formed, bringing together parliamentarians from the G8 countries plus China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico. According to Blair’s friends, it was his idea. Its timetable is fairly urgent, since the replacement for Kyoto must be ready by 2010 to give a two-year run-up to implementation. Since a new US president won’t be in place till 2009, it’s clearly too late to wait until then to start negotiations – a potential deal needs to be ready and waiting for the new president.
So Globe has been working with the possible Republican and Democratic candidates, and their Congressional supporters. Its lobbying is resolutely non-partisan. On Wednesday, through Globe, senior Republican and Democrat congressmen meet representatives from India and China. This follows work by Stephen Byers, who has been one of Blair’s key behind-the-scenes fixers, preparing the ground for him in China this autumn. Among others quietly joining Globe is the veteran diplomat Sir Michael Jay, who was Blair’s Foreign Office “sherpa” at Gleneagles.
Also attending the Washington meeting will be John McCain, the Republican presidential hopeful, plus four chairmen of key Senate committees: Joe Lieberman (homeland security), Jeff Bingaman (energy), Barbara Boxer (environment) and Joe Biden (foreign relations). Members of the Chinese Communist party’s environment and energy committees are expected, as is Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi’s son and an important player in the Indian parliament. With a change in atmosphere in America since the mid-term elections, Blair believes the time is ripe for a new push: even such corporations as Boeing and Dupont are in discussion about future carbon allowances and tradeable quotas.
The idea is that as soon as Blair has finally left office in Britain, he will begin travelling. He remains popular in the US where he will be speaking to the likes of Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama and the rest of the developing Republican and Democratic field. Though Blair will never criticise his old friend Bush in public, his friends say he is well aware that the end of the “big oil” presidency is an opportunity to be grabbed. Whoever the next president is, it won’t be a Texan oilman.
Those working with Blair on “the legacy” say that there are other things he still wants to do. He has not given up hope on personal work on the Middle East peace process, and wants to be remembered for Northern Ireland, too. On domestic policy, he has decided to do nothing that will be seen as a personal attack on Gordon Brown – though the diaries of some of his inner circle could still rock a boat or two.
So what do we make of all this? There will be hoots of derision in many quarters. Can some diplomatic shuffling in the US on “Kyoto 2” really make up in any way for the horror of Iraq? Isn’t this just his attempt to mimic Al Gore’s climate change reinvention, with a whiff of Clinton thrown in? Can we so soon forget Blair’s stickily close relationship with the oilmen’s president, however much he publicly repeats that they disagree on climate change? And, most crucially, if the beginnings of a deal really are formed among various US, Chinese and Indian politicians, won’t it really be their show, not Blair’s? Isn’t it, in short, mere grandstanding?
Against all that, though, it is impossible not to admire the chutzpah and optimism of Tony Blair as, amid all the failures and disappointments, he struggles to find one more epic role – up like Sylvester Stallone for just one more Rocky. If Globe acts as a smoother of relations, working among parliamentarians with an energy and speed that official conferences and contacts often lack, then it can only do good. Blair has credit in the US that he can still cash – and it would be fine to see him cashing it for something other than money. And you can be sure that, if a deal is done over the next three years, there will be world leaders ready to shove British interlopers aside and take the credit.
This is far better than sulking, back-seat driving or raking in the cash. The old case for Blair was that his intentions were good; it was just the results that went awry. This time, let’s not look too closely at his intentions. All that matters is the result. If he wants a cause, none is bigger.