Magazine article The Spectator

Meet the Minister for Selling the Unsellable

Magazine article The Spectator

Meet the Minister for Selling the Unsellable

Article excerpt

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first tip for stardom.

Throughout his twenties, Jim Murphy suffered this affliction.

Before Tony Blair led the Labour party he was starting a Blairite revolution in the National Union of Students. His slogan, 'realism, not revolution', made a cover story in the Sunday Times magazine. No list of young talent in the mid-1990s was complete without him. Yet only now, 11 years after his election to parliament, has he reappeared on the national radar.

The 40-year-old minister I meet in the vast Foreign Office room is a lot quieter and more bashful than the student firebrand I once saw shouting down far-left activists in Glasgow. As I walk in he jumps out of his seat and makes me a cup of tea, chatting non-stop. He asks about Alex Salmond -- why does he get good press? Do I think the Tories still lack hunger?

It feels almost antisocial producing my notebook. But if I were him, I'd want to talk about anything but his job: pushing the Lisbon Treaty through parliament.

As Europe Minister, I ask, doesn't he have the worst job in government? He must drive through a treaty which the public do not want, and do not believe is any different to the old constitution on which they were promised a referendum. 'My job, ' he says, slowly, 'is to repeatedly try to explain and discuss how it is different in substance and consequence from the old constitution.' A tough task, I say, given the long list of European leaders saying the two documents are substantially the same.

'The building blocks of your argument aren't very strong in that the rest of Europe hasn't said it's the same, ' he says. I quote Bertie Ahern and Angela Merkel, but he stops me. 'There are quotes from every leader in Europe saying the Treaty is different to the constitution. There just are. Sure, we can trade quotes at each other -- the Prime Minister of Luxembourg says this, someone in Slovenia says that.' But what about the House of Commons European scrutiny committee -- surely what it says must be taken seriously? 'Of course, but it said the Treaty is substantially the same for those countries who have not secured the optouts which Britain has. We have a unique deal.' He is technically correct, but the committee went on to say it was 'not convinced' that the UK version of the Treaty wasn't 'substantially the same'.

Mr Murphy knows the arguments against this Treaty, and knows how to fight them: drag your opponent down into minutiae. I could swear I detected a smile when he used phrases like 'third pillar' and 'Schengen aspects of justice' as if he was daring me to put them into this piece and see how many readers I would lose.

But surely, I ask, he accepts widespread hostility to the Treaty. For example, he recently explained his case on a video posted on a Labour party website. 'Ask a question, ' it says -- and underneath are comments from the public with questions like 'Is this legal?' and 'How can you look at yourself in the mirror?' alongside phrases such as 'mealy-mouth spin', 'running scared', 'total breach of faith', 'blatant lies' and worse.

He gives a resigned sigh. 'The first email I received in this job said: "Congratulations on your appointment. I've watched the careers of all of your predecessors and I am certain you will die a lonely death and be buried in a traitor's grave."' Was it from Frank Field? …

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