April 25, 2004


Europe or Bust: He told us he has no reverse gear, that the EU constitution changes were simply tinkering, and that he, not Rupert Murdoch, runs the country. Really? The Sunday Herald trawls through the wreckage . James Cusick, 25 April 2004, Sunday Herald)

Although Blair’s Easter recess Bermuda break was described by Number 10 as a “well-deserved holiday” it was not the usual get-away-from-it-all package you can buy from Elegant Resorts or Kuoni. Blair was carrying heavy baggage with him: the right-wing free enterprise economist Irwin Stelzer, a close business associate of Rupert Murdoch, had dined in Downing Street just before parliament broke up.

Stelzer’s table talk is said to have been blunt and clear. Murdoch wants a referendum on the draft constitution and effectively warned Blair that the continued support of The Times and The Sun was conditional on that. Given the current level of public support and scepticism over the idea of a European constitution, Downing Street also knows Murdoch wants a referendum for one reason and one reason only – because the government will lose.

And Blair and his Cabinet colleagues do not want to lose either a referendum or the next general election. But on how such objectives will be achieved there is no consensus.

Blair took with him to Bermuda the advice of key colleagues. As one adviser puts it: “Let’s get this clear, there was no marching into Blair’s office to get things clear on the Europe problem. There was no Thatcher-style moment where doves turned into hawks and boldly told it to Tony straight. Whoever the hell is putting this about is living in a fantasy land.”

But what there was, was almost a collegiate offering of opinions that may have persuaded Blair of what he was already beginning to feel. Bottom line? He’d got it wrong on his blanket refusal to hold a referendum and unless he confessed to the misjudgement and changed direction quickly, accepting the political fallout and short-term embarrassment, an opportunity would be gone.

The opportunity is the window between now and the European elections in June. But as well as the Stelzer “ultimatum” meeting, Blair was also recently briefed by his private polling experts. The forecasts for Labour’s predicted performance made grim reading, even for the Downing Street advisers who knew the European poll was a key date for voters to give the government a mid-term black eye on everything from Iraq to tuition fees. Blair’s falling trust quotient, factored into everything else, pointed to the lowest turn-out recorded in a national poll, with Labour not expected to pass the 50% of those who bothered to vote. That kind of support – perhaps as low as one in 10 of the entire electorate – would cloud everything the government did between June and the expected general election in May next year.

Those in the Cabinet who offered their view are said to have focused on one potential pathway through the electoral mire: disarm the more confident Conservative Party. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is said to have recently reconvened a fading friendship with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Straw, an almost time-served Eurosceptic, according to some close associates in the Foreign Office, has apparently had a rethink on Europe. His tone in discussions with Brown were described as “almost confessional”. The thinking is that Michael Howard needs to be disarmed of the referendum weapon and by Labour pro-actively calling for the referendum, it would remove the constant accusation of running scared. It would also re-ignite the entire “in” or “out” of Europe debate – likely to cause more splits in Tory ranks than among the Labour benches – and it would remove with a scalpel efficiency, the foundation Howard was building on which to fight both the European and general elections.

Now the Tories have to summon the courage to admit that they were wrong and Margaret Thatcher was right. If they wage the next election as the anti-European party they'll win. But Mr. Blair's calculation that they don't have the guts to is likely accurate.

Blair’s gamble plays into the hands of Eurosceptics … and ‘old Europe’ (Angus Roxburgh, 4/25/04, Sunday Herald)

Europeans – in the sense of those who support “the European project” – have reacted with astonishment and dismay to Tony Blair’s U-turn on holding a referendum on the EU’s constitution. Astonishment because there is no EU requirement for the constitution to be approved by referendum and everyone accepted Blair’s previous insistence that such matters were dealt with in the UK by parliament, as they are in several other countries. Dismay because a referendum on Europe in the continent’s most Eurosceptical country looks like dangerous folly, risking the destruction not just of a treaty but of the EU itself. Dismay, too, because some other countries which didn’t really want to hold a referendum (such as France and Sweden) may now feel under pressure to do so.

One German newspaper predicted that the EU now faced a rocky period after which “the dream of a unified larger union will be over”. Britain would be more isolated than ever, and Germany and France would be at the heart of a “core Europe”. The stakes are very high.

Isolated from a dying Europe but at the heart of the Anglosphere and the Axis of Good.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 25, 2004 8:56 AM

As everyone except the EU-nuchs knows..."Fog over the Channel, Continent cut off."

Posted by: H.D. Miller at April 25, 2004 10:23 AM

Bah - According to a blurb on EURSOC - vote's not til 2006!

Posted by: Sandy P at April 26, 2004 2:00 AM