Magazine article The Spectator

There Are Hints That Mr Blair May Be Regretting His Timidity

Magazine article The Spectator

There Are Hints That Mr Blair May Be Regretting His Timidity

Article excerpt

The most important conflict in modern British politics has now begun. The battle for the future of the pound will not only be the principal question at the next general election, it is likely to reshape the current party system. The issues at stake are fundamental. The outcome will determine the way in which we make our laws and try to protect our freedoms; how we are governed, and who we are.

Yet at present only one side appears to be fighting and there are already complaints as to the quality of generalship. But these do not relate to Mr Hague, though they ought to. They concern Mr Blair.

Several of his senior supporters such as Roy Jenkins feel that he is in danger of missing a great historic opportunity. Never has a prime minister been more powerful. He has a massive majority not only in the Commons but in the zeitgeist. The once formidable coalition of forces which underpinned Tory Britain now seems scattered and demoralised. Mr Blair has the power, but when is he going to use it? Why not hold an early referendum on the single currency, win it, and thus destroy Tory Britain for ever?

Despite the October fiasco things have not changed that much in Nos 10 and 11. It is still hard to tell which is the spinner and which the spin. But there are hints, though it is impossible to be certain if they are accurate, that Mr Blair himself may now regret his timidity. Ten days later, it is hard to remember just how much trouble the government was in when the Commons reassembled. If Mr Blair could have foreseen the events of those past ten days, Mr Brown might not have gone so far in ruling out a referendum in this Parliament. But he did leave himself an escape route: if circumstances were to change in a wholly unexpected way, then Britain could still try to join before the election. By circumstances, the Chancellor meant economic conditions: the Maastricht convergence criteria, the business cycle et al. But now that the Clarke/Heseltine convergence criteria are looking so favourable and with them the political cycle, the Chancellor's text may well be scrutinised to see if it could bear a different interpretation to the one originally intended. The Financial Times article about an early referendum which started the whole furore was 10 per cent true when it originally appeared. Then that went down to zero. It is now back at 10 per cent, and may be rising.

But Mr Blair also has cautious tendencies. Roy Jenkins may be urging him to disregard them, but his Lordship is in the ermine phase of his political career; Mr Blair still has elections to win. Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine would both like to urge boldness on him. And when it comes to boldness, they both know whereof they speak. But look where it got them, or rather did not get them. Neither of them made it to No. 10. Tony Blair did, and he intends to stay there. Most prime ministers come to understand the weight that Admiral Jellicoe felt on his shoulders: the one man who could lose the war in an afternoon. Tony Blair does not want to lose his second term in a referendum.

Mr Blair is not only cautious, but contradictory. On the one hand his political antennae, which must be respected, are telling him that the single currency could be the Tories' only hope of winning the election. But on the other, he seems to believe in historical inevitability. Like Michael Heseltine and much of the City, he appears to think that British membership of the single currency is a done deal, and that the only remaining question is not whether we join, but when. …

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