Magazine article The Spectator

Why the Government Is Going Bananas over the Eurosceptic Press

Magazine article The Spectator

Why the Government Is Going Bananas over the Eurosceptic Press

Article excerpt

Imagine Tony Blair in Moscow earlier this week. He is swept around in limousines, flattered by Vladimir Putin, and generally treated as though he were leader of a very important country. And then his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, is faxed copies of the morning's front pages from London. `Is Blair playing with fire?' asks the Daily Mail. 'EU're in the army now,' puns the Sun. Actually, they don't seem to be the most provocative headlines imaginable, but they had an explosive effect when the much-feted Mr Blair read them on Tuesday morning. Interviewed by Andrew Marr on Radio Four's Today programme, the Prime Minister laid into the `absolute and utter madness' of what he now calls `the anti-European press'. He appears to have been genuinely angry. When the short interview was finished, Mr Marr informed listeners that in a separate conversation Mr Blair had described `the anti-European press' as `fundamentally dishonest'.

This ferocious attack was preceded last week by one from Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. In an unusual attempt at humour, Mr Cook accused some newspapers of having a vision of Europe in which jackbooted Europeans' roam the streets of Britain arresting anyone eating bananas or drinking pints of beer. His assault, which displeased the less Europhile Gordon Brown, was itself preceded by two speeches from Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader and now vice-president of the European Commission, who blamed the press for pumping out Eurosceptic 'bilge'. Mr Kinnock lets fly in similar vein in an interview in this issue of The Spectator. Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has also recently heaped scorn on the Eurosceptic press, while Keith Vaz, Mr Cook's deputy, has provided useful covering fire, particularly against the Sun.

There is a co-ordinated attempt by some members of the government to portray the Eurosceptic press as being several apples short of a picnic, as well as inherently mendacious. To some degree the outrage is honestly felt, as I have suggested it was in the case of Mr Blair. Mr Kinnock loathes the tabloids, largely for doing him down when he was Labour leader. Mr Cook's anger is genuine, though it may be partly whipped up by a political calculation. In his predicament - a senior minister likely to be sacked after the next election - he might as well distinguish himself by taking on some formidable opponents and showing off his long-forgotten skills in guerrilla warfare to the Prime Minister.

But why now? Why the co-ordinated attack? The answer lies in a four-letter word: Nice. The government knows that it will have to concede more territory than it would like at next month's European summit on the C6te d'Azur. At the end of last week Mr Cook wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph in which he argued that the extension of majority voting in some instances would actually promote Britain's national self-interest. In fact, the government would much rather keep its veto in as many areas as possible, but realises that the European Commission and most member states want `qualified majority voting' to be made the rule in Nice. There will be some sort of compromise, but that will be interpreted by `the anti-European press' as a sell-out. So the government is pre-emptively debunking its critics in the hope that their howls of outrage will be discounted by the British people. …

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