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Once again, Europe threatens to devour another British PM

In British politics, the Europe question always comes to embody the problems that a Prime Minister faces. So Gordon Brown will fly back from Lisbon with a treaty that emphasises that he is scared of putting things to the country and that he spins just as much as his predecessor ever did. With the ratification process expected to run for six months, Mr. Brown faces prolonged trouble over this document and maybe even his first large scale Labour rebellion. 

17 October 2007

3:48 PM

17 October 2007

3:48 PM

In British politics, the Europe question always comes to embody the problems that a Prime Minister faces. So Gordon Brown will fly back from Lisbon with a treaty that emphasises that he is scared of putting things to the country and that he spins just as much as his predecessor ever did. With the ratification process expected to run for six months, Mr. Brown faces prolonged trouble over this document and maybe even his first large scale Labour rebellion. 

Only last month, the European Union Reform Treaty seemed to pose little problem for Gordon Brown. He had enough political capital to sign and dispose of this unwanted inheritance from Tony Blair. He’d face a few protests, rude newspaper editorials and captious opinion polls. But the whole episode was expected to amount to a brief period of turbulence in his otherwise smooth flight towards winning the next election. The outlook, then, was so blissfully different from the storm now looming.

The Prime Minister can expect to fly back from the Lisbon summit on Friday with a document which — whatever his claims to the contrary — might have been drafted specifically to symbolise all his alleged failings and to amplify the criticisms levelled against him since he ruled out a November election. His announcement in an interview with Andrew Marr that he would not be going to the country instantly sparked accusations not only of cowardice but of deviousness: the PM found himself accused on all sides of being unable to level with the British public, of evasiveness and running scared of the electorate. In the EU Treaty he has a document that seems to have been designed specifically to deceive them: to take the British people for fools, to borrow David Cameron’s favourite new soundbite. Mr Brown’s critics have always claimed that he governs by cabal and ignores his party. What better example of that claim?

Very early on in his premiership, Mr Brown has become a victim of an unwritten rule in British politics: the Europe debate soon becomes a proxy for whatever troubles the Prime Minister faces. Harold Wilson called a referendum in 1975 not because of any constitutional conviction, but to prevent his party from splitting top-to-toe and to use Europe as a means to fight and win his battle with Labour’s left, which regarded the Common Market as a capitalist cabal.

For Thatcher, ‘Europe’ came to embody the complaint that she had become too divisive a leader, deaf to the entreaties of her Cabinet. She never recovered from the threatened rebellion of Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe prior to the Madrid summit in 1989. The Maastricht debacle of 1992-93 transformed the ratification of a Treaty into what amounted to a series of confidence votes, exposed John Major as a weak leader, unable to control his party and hidebound by its divisions, and paved the way for the leadership contest of 1995 and the Labour landslide of 1997. For Tony Blair, Europe symbolised the perennial conflict between his ideals and political reality. In 1997, he wanted to end what he saw as generations of equivocation about Europe, enter the single currency, and then steer the project from its centre. He was convinced he could bring voters round. But public opinion was unmovable, a ‘concrete block’, as Philip Gould repeatedly told him. But the larger obstacle Mr Blair encountered came in the shape of Gordon Brown.

Here is the deep irony. For years, Mr Brown stood as the bulwark against European integration and Mr Blair’s glassy-eyed belief in our European ‘destiny’. As Chancellor he did more than anyone to keep Britain out of the single currency, erecting the ‘five tests’ barrier that was never surmounted. He regularly defied the European Commission over the (comically misnamed) Stability & Growth Pact, saying if they wanted harmony on fiscal framework they should adapt his Golden Rules. He was known in Brussels (but not so much in Britain) for his epic intransigence. In an interview with The Spectator last year, the Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, expressed his exasperation with Mr Brown’s refusal to play by the rules: ‘You cannot go to a beefeaters’ club and say you are a vegetarian.’

Yet now it falls to the very same man–now installed in No. 10–to spend six months selling a deal which Mr Blair signed up to last June. To push the document through, he will have to rubbish the objections of the Labour-dominated European Scrutiny committee. Mr Brown has always said that the ‘European Question’ could not be resolved without first answering the ‘British Question’. This self-styled champion of ‘Britishness’ must now, in effect, side with the Eurocrats against the British public: either this, or ruin his reputation in Europe by pulling the plug on the Treaty, which the rest of the 27 member states have agreed. France, which vetoed the original Constitutional Treaty in a referendum last time, can sign this time because supporting the Reform Treaty was an explicit part of Nicolas Sarkozy’s election manifesto. Ireland is obliged to hold a referendum by its constitution. Britain–yet again–is the only real ‘problem nation’.

And it is a problem not because of the ‘red lines’ and opt-outs which Mr Brown has negotiated, but because of 11 words written on page 84 of Labour’s 2005 manifesto. This passage declares support for the original constitution and pledges, ‘We will put it to the British people in a referendum.’ As Mr Brown himself said four months ago, ‘We have to honour that manifesto. That is an issue of trust, for me, with the electorate.’ And it is a matter of trust which Europe has now become for him.

Mr Brown has set much store by the extent to which his style of government represents a break from the Blair era of dodgy dossiers and sofa government. He has promised that more prerogative powers will be transferred to Parliament, and to set up citizens’ juries. Yet–in spite of all the spin to the contrary–he will return from Lisbon with a document designed to hoodwink the British public. As most Continental commentators and politicians declare with relish, the new Treaty has all the substance of a constitution without the c-word. ‘All the earlier proposals will be in the new text,’ said Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, author of the original constitution. ‘But they will be hidden and disguised in some way.’

So it has proved. Of the 250 clauses in the new treaty, all but ten come from the old constitution. Both texts are 63,000 words long. There is no Foreign Minister, but instead a High Representative. ‘It’s the original job,’ Bertie Ahern assured Ireland, ‘but they just put on this long title.’ His assessment is that the Treaty is 90 per cent the same as the old document. The governments of Germany, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Finland and Luxembourg have explicitly informed their voters that the Treaty is substantially the same as the constitution, but is worded differently.

This maximises the embarrassment for Mr Brown. He cannot admit as much, as he would be bound by such an admission to have a referendum. The differences between the two documents, such as they are, are not definitive and–in the eyes of the Commons Scrutiny Committee–do not alter the fact that the two Treaties remain ‘substantially equivalent’. Even the so-called red lines added to the new Treaty to secure Britain’s sovereignty in key areas of policy are fading by the day: the committee’s hearings on Tuesday made that much clear. Mr Brown is left clinging to a deeply jesuitical defence–supplied to him by the EU–that the leaders have signed a document saying that the ‘constitutional concept has been abandoned’. This is the political equivalent of Magritte’s ‘Treachery of Images’, a picture of a pipe with ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ writte
n underneath. Both are different forms of Belgian surrealism. Both strike the onlooker as nonsense.

In his defence, Mr Brown makes much mention of the Maastricht Treaty–a far more significant document, he says, which was not put to a referendum. He is right on the second point–but then all three major parties were in favour of the treaty during parliamentary debates, as they had been in the 1992 general election. Only the Lib Dems wanted a referendum, and amendments proposing such a vote were easily defeated. What Mr Brown will remember most vividly is how ‘Europe’ became a shorthand for all of Major’s travails: how it split and debilitated the Tories.

The PM hopes the Conservatives will be split again. But his greater hurdle will be the cohesion of the Labour party. As with Major, Europe is becoming emblematic of other problems, the prism through which the PM’s fortunes are seen–including his handling of his own party. The toecap-staring that can be seen on the Labour benches on Wednesdays, as Mr Brown stumbles through another Prime Minister’s Questions, reflects more than embarrassment. It is a symptom of a growing feeling among Labour MPs that Mr Brown neither knows nor cares what his party thinks. The animosity between senior ministers and parliamentary party was equally clear in the hostile exchanges between David Miliband and the European Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday. Threatening rebellion over the EU treaty would certainly be an effective way of grabbing the PM’s attention.

With a 69-seat majority, it takes 35 rebels to defeat the government. A recent tally by the Sunday Telegraph shows that 13 Labour MPs have already broken with the party line on Europe and there may be 40 rebels in total. The risk Mr Brown faces is that general discontent–or simply neglected egos–crystallises into mutiny over the ratification. The PM could call the rebels’ bluff, and say that a defeat for the Treaty would amount to a no-confidence vote. But far better to resolve tensions before such brinkmanship.

This means Mr Brown switching tactics. Even in private, he dismisses talk of a referendum by giving mini-lectures about the British doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Yet he knows too much history to consider himself on solid ground. Referendums were identified as a legitimate part of the parliamentary apparatus in 1890 by A.V. Dicey, the great jurist whose works are considered one of the foundation stones of Britain’s uncodified constitution. Refer­endums, he said, are the only sound way to check a Commons majority when great changes are afoot.

In fact, the referendums Britain has held–Northern Ireland (1973 and 1998), the Common Market (1975) and Scotland and Wales (1979 and 1997)–ought to have established a de facto constitutional convention: namely, that the powers of the British parliament should not be transferred without a clear popular mandate. Britain voted for a free trade bloc in 1975. Permission has never been granted for today’s European Union, in which Brussels has a say in everything from Eastern European immigration to the phasing out of weekly bin collections. You may or may not like that, but it isn’t what we voted for 32 years ago. Mr Brown talks a lot about the need to re-engage people, especially the young, in politics. The enemy, he likes to say, is the very idea that politics is something done to people–leaving them little power over political discourse. By his own standards, a referendum on Europe (and no one under 50 will have had the chance to vote in such a referendum) is the evident solution. His refusal to grant one will send a far louder message than his speeches talking about a ‘new kind of politics’ and linked-up ‘citizen’s juries’. Yet again, people will see the yawning gap between Labour spin and Labour policy.

It all looks very much like the old style of politics: a Euro stitch-up, with half-truths being peddled by ministers and enforced on a public which polls show to be strongly in favour of a referendum and deeply suspicious of the European project. And with the final Commons vote not expected until April next year, there is a lot of this to look forward to. There could hardly be a better example of the ‘old politics’ Mr Brown affects to despise: that of the political elite driving forward a strategy the public do not accept, and one on which they would like a say.

Once again, as so often in our political history, a European debacle is focusing attention on the shortcomings of a Prime Minister. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP seconded to help draft the original constitution, chose her words carefully in an Evening Standard article this week. This is ‘a matter of trust and integrity’, she said. Her claim that Mr Brown ‘lacks veracity’ was even softened in the official Downing Street minutes to ‘lacking voracity’. But her meaning was widely understood.

The final question Ms Stuart posed underlines the greatest risk Mr Brown now faces. Precedent shows that today’s specific question about Europe is tomorrow’s generic question about a Prime Minister’s very fitness to lead. Does he really trust the British people? And if not, why should the people trust him?

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