Brown's Armlock Is Tighter Than Ever. (Europeans/Britain and the Euro)

By Kampfner, John | New Statesman (1996), June 16, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Brown's Armlock Is Tighter Than Ever. (Europeans/Britain and the Euro)


Kampfner, John, New Statesman (1996)


Now there will be a review before an assessment before a referendum. Entry to the single currency still looks a long way off.

Britain's two leaders have tried cross-dressing. Gordon Brown put the case for the euro. Tony Blair put the case for economics. Their minders were pleased with their efforts: "It was as if they were reading from each other's scripts," says one aide, by way of a compliment.

A truce has been called in their bitter fight for political hegemony. It won't last long, but that it is taking place at all is no mean feat. The outline of the latest battle over the past three months was known; its detail is by turns compelling and alarming.

It was only in January that the Prime Minister realised that the Treasury's assessment of the five economic tests was proceeding as quickly as it was. The background analysis, all 1,738 pages of it, was close to completion even before No 10 had taken a proper look. From the end of that month, at Blair's behest, a series of "seminars" was held, going through each of the 18 studies that made up the actual assessment.

Eight of these gatherings were held in February and March. Blair took his Europe adviser, Sir Stephen Wall, his former Treasury number-cruncher, Jeremy Heywood, and his ever-vigilant chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. Brown's team included Ed Balls, his chief economic adviser, Gus O'Donnell, his permanent secretary who was overseeing the assessment, and other officials.

At the same time, Blair and Brown met one-to-one no fewer than 20 times -- all this when Britain's diplomatic strategy over Iraq was in meltdown, the war was being fought and a postwar strategy was hastily being drawnup. They met in Blair's flat. They met in Blair's office. They met, on one occasion for more than four hours, at Chequers. Blair was desperate to salvage something from a process whose ownership he had ceded to his friend and rival in a rush of panic in the autumn of 1997. Brown held all the levers. By the time Brown formally presented his findings to Blair on 1 April, it was too late to do anything about the actual conclusion -- that only one test in five had been passed.

Brown was ready and raring to give the assessment on Budget day, 9 April. Blair vetoed that, in an attempt to gain more time. That day also marked the high point of the war, with the dramatic pictures of Saddam Hussein's statue tumbling down. Blair's advisers urged him to use the "Baghdad bounce" to compensate for the unhappy euro process.

In the statement presented to parliament on 9 June and in the deliciously uncomfortable joint press conference the following day, Brown gave Blair some impressive-sounding language, the semblance of momentum and a promise to revisit the issue in March. These were relatively cost-free concessions. The language, as Blair knows over weapons of mass destruction, is easy to deliver, much harder to marry with the reality. The "strong pro-Europe national consensus" will now be proclaimed over the coming year.

The euro advocates still do not have the "road map" they were looking for. Instead they have "staging posts". They have a more European inflation target. They have proposals for housing reform, they have -- to the chagrin of trade unions -- a regional or local dimension to public sector pay, and they have the promise of a draft referendum bill. This will not set pulses racing. Still, Brown did show willing by breakfasting on 11 June with the board of Britain in Europe, the oft-frustrated lobby group for the euro. Hours later, he and Blair conjured another display of unity at the Parliamentary Labour Party. Brown stressed that his "pragmatic" approach should be a unifying factor. Those present said Peter Mandelson had apologised for accusing Brown of a lack of political will a couple of weeks previously. Intriguingly, Mandelson was said to have conceded that a referendum next autumn was not vital.

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