Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

As soon as I read that 52 former diplomats had written to the Prime Minister to express dismay at his policies in the Middle East, I shouted out '364 economists!' In March 1981, following Geoffrey Howe's Budget, 364 economists wrote to the Times. They denounced the Budget as a deflationary disaster. It was from this moment that the British economy began the recovery from which we benefit to this day. Mrs Thatcher had to contend with one economist (almost) for each day of the year, while Mr Blair has only one diplomat per week, but the principle is the same -whatever shortcomings your policy has, if it is condemned by the herd of experts it can't be all bad. The 52 particularly dislike democracy in the Middle East: it must be an idea whose time is coming.

In the six months in which I have been hors de combat, buried in biography rather than journalism, Tony Blair seems to have lost that most precious possession in politics - the benefit of the doubt. The assumption underlying almost every broadcast and headline, most often produced by those who welcomed the 'nation reborn' of 1997, is that the Prime Minister is a) blundering, b) ill, or c) lying, sometimes more than one of these things. As someone who has never voted for his party, never liked his style and never believed that he has any interesting ideas for the future of the country, I might be expected to be pleased that the scales have fallen from the public's eyes. In fact, I think it is unfair. The merit of Tony Blair - and it is a considerable one - is that he intensely dislikes the Labour party and wants to use it as the vehicle to create a social democratic alternative to the Tories. This was the point of him when he became the Labour leader nearly ten years ago, and it is still the point today. By fighting the war in Iraq, he stuck to this approach, and showed notable courage in doing so. He did the right thing, if not always presented in the right terms. Now he is doing the right thing in promising a referendum on the EU constitution, yet is criticised for weakness. The rows over the euro have shown that the European project cannot survive unless it tries to win by argument rather than by stealth. Perhaps it cannot win at all (I hope it cannot, in its present form), but a referendum victory is its only way forward.

And not only is Mr Blair right, he remains a very clever politician. Look at his referendum decision, for a moment, purely in terms of party advantage. It takes away from the Conservatives one of their main rhetorical weapons, putting them on the side of negativity and Labour on the side of 'choice'. And it strengthens the Prime Minister's inbuilt superiority in matters of timing. If, as is extremely likely, Labour wins the next election with a working majority, he can then hold his European referendum quickly against a divided Tory party, supported (crossly) by the Liberals. It could be like the Welsh Assembly referendum in 1997: public enthusiasm was non-existent, but the Tories were too weak to mount an effective 'No' campaign, and the 'Yes'-sayers won by a few thousand votes. With a 'Yes' on the constitution, the Tories are then trampled down for another generation and the five economic tests for euro-entry miraculously become very easy to pass. And if Mr Blair fails? …

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