Bruce Anderson

Prepare for an October surprise

Bruce Anderson says that embarrassments over the European constitution may force Tony Blair to call an early election

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For nearly seven years, Tony Blair’s caution was the Europhiles’ despair. They wanted him to make the case for Europe and exploit his hold over public opinion. Their confidence exceeded his. Mr Blair was not prepared to take electoral risks for Europe. As recently as December, when the EU constitution seemed lost in the long grass, the PM did not send a search party.

Now everything is different, thanks to al-Qa’eda. Spain’s constitutional obstructiveness ended overnight and with it Poland’s. Suddenly Mr Blair had a choice: renounce his Euro diplomatic ambitions, or embrace the constitution. The speed with which he made his decision surprised some of his former critics, who are now almost ready to credit him with courage. But it is courage buttressed by calculation. Mr Blair is now trying to turn embarrassment into electoral advantage.

In the first place, he believes that his opponents will not be able to find a smoking gun in the constitution’s text. In this, he may be right. Whether or not the drafters set out to give opacity a bad name, they succeeded. It will not be easy to extract damning sentences from the treacly prose. This does not mean that the constitution is a mere tidying-up exercise, as some ministers have mendaciously claimed. Every time the UK has signed away powers to the EU, we later discovered that our politicians have given away more than they realised, or admitted. But if we were to accept the constitution, we would have seen nothing yet. Up to now, it has still been possible to argue, albeit with ever increasing difficulty, that the EU was an association of independent states with common purposes. But the constitution would confer upon it a supra-national legal personality, plus new competences — the EU’s laughable euphemism for its powers — in social policy, employment practices, economic policy, policing matters, criminal justice, border control and defence.

Though the exact scope of these new powers is anything but clear, vagueness is no defence against vastness. Moreover, any constitutional disagreements would be resolved in the EU’s supreme court, the European Court of Justice, which can be guaranteed to place the most federalising construction on any disputed passages.

Tony Blair will try to deflect criticism by insisting that he has protected his red lines, on direct taxation and foreign policy. But he has a problem: the referendum.

Most British voters believe that the power of Europe has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. They do not trust politicians; they think that they should have the final say, in a referendum. There are arguments against referendums, but whatever the niceties, no government which has held 34 referendums in seven years can now proclaim its distaste for plebiscitary democracy. Mr Blair is not against referendums on principle, but he is afraid that he would lose.

He is also worried that the referendum could dominate British politics over the next, pre-election year. Many Labour MPs would join the Liberals and most Tories in demanding a referendum, and even if Mr Blair could beat the Commons rebels, he would not be certain to win in the Lords.

In response, there are two strategies which he could adopt: long or short. If he went long, he would tough out the Commons debate while nominating enough crony peers to ensure the Lords’ subservience. If necessary, he might even postpone the election until next October, by which time the constitution would have been ratified. He would then tell the voters that it was too late for amendments; the others would never agree. Britain had only one choice: acquiescence or withdrawal. The PM would calculate that the prospect of withdrawal would panic the City and thus split the Tories.

Yet even if that were to happen, the voters might still be enraged enough to throw out the Blair government in a fury of resentment. That might indeed leave Michael Howard with some awkward questions, but he would be pondering them in Downing Street.

There is an alternative: the short route, and there are rumours that Mr Blair is considering it. Suppose he went to the country this October, in search of a new mandate in a dangerous world. He would claim that the Tories were bent on isolating Britain, whereas he had proved that it was possible to maintain the US alliance and have good relations with Europe. He would urge the British people not to let the Tories lead Britain into a backwater. He would also calculate that the British people are still not ready to say goodbye to him.

It would be a hazardous venture, but there are signs that Tony Blair is close to deciding that the short-term dangers are less than the longer-term ones. He also retains his belief that he is good at winning elections. Any sensible opposition party should now be making contingency plans for an October surprise.