Christopher Fildes

Tony Blair’s City nemesis turns up again and opens fire from a tank

Tony Blair’s City nemesis turns up again and opens fire from a tank

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The results tell their own story: Tony Blair 3, Conservative party 0; Tony Blair 0, Rodney Leach 3. As David Cameron and David Davis wrestle for the tattered armband which has already passed from captain to captain three times in eight years, they should ask themselves if they are in the right league. Their apparently invincible opponent has been worsted three times, on what he believed to be his own ground, by a Corinthian from the City who is now limbering up for the next fixture. The ground, as ever, is Europe, and when the new young Prime Minister first trotted on to the pitch, he must have thought that the result was predestined. So many people did. He would secure Britain’s place in Europe — and his own place in history — by signing us up for monetary union and the euro. True, this would mean drafting a referendum and winning it, but what was to stop him? He was a proven vote-winner, all the bigwigs of the CBI and TUC and the Financial Times were solidly behind him, and the inevitable Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge would lead his campaigning group, Britain in Europe. It would not have disturbed him to know that a resistance movement was forming in Lombard Street, or that its chief maquisard was the director who supplied strategic thinking to the great Eastern trading house of Jardine Matheson and had just brought out an A to Z of the European Union, from Aachen to Zollverein. This was Rodney Leach. His guerrillas at Business for Sterling learned to ambush their opponents, the Treasury helpfully spun out its Famous Five tests for membership, and the right moment for a referendum never came — most of all, because the polls always showed that it was sure to be lost.

Pause for regrouping

For the replay, Mr Blair changed tactics. From time to time he would still tell his pet lobby correspondents that his heart was set on the euro, but his mind had turned to Europe’s next great project, the Constitution. He would sign us up for this, instead, and without any need to hold a referendum. After all, as his minister for Europe had asserted, it was only an exercise in tidying up, or could be so presented. All the same, to rubber-stamp the Constitution without any kind of popular mandate might cause difficulties, with a general election just ahead. He found that the maquisard of Lombard Street had regrouped his forces for a No campaign. Sitting (or so he told us) by the pool in the West Indies, the Prime Minister came round to the view that we must have a referendum. Mr Leach could count that as a win in the replay, although, obviously, the big match was still ahead.

Leaving the field

That match, in the event, was not so much played as conceded. The promise of a referendum, once given, was an example that President Jacques Chirac, however grudgingly, felt bound to follow. He must have thought that the result could be managed, with the help, if need be, of some Oui votes flown in from France Outremer — but the French voted Non and the Dutch voted Nej and the Constitution, formally at least, was off Europe’s agenda. That was Mr Blair’s cue to leave the field and he took it without hesitation. Since there was nothing to vote about, he said, there was no need for a referendum, so we wouldn’t have one. He was left to find some other place in history. Britain in Europe took its cue from him and shut up shop, the last man out of the door explaining that its campaign operations had ceased because there was no campaign. The chief maquisard could chalk up another victory: Blair 0, Leach 3. His next campaign, though, will need to be different.

Opening salvo

Classical scholar that he is, Mr Leach likens his strategic position to Hannibal’s after Cannae, when the Romans, weary of losing battles, opted not to fight any, relying instead on wearing or tiring their opponents out. To meet this, he has taken to tank warfare, with a think-tank. Familiar faces from his previous campaigns will appear under thinking-caps in the guise of Open Europe. Their first salvo is aimed at the protective walls of Fortress Europe. It may not make an immediate impact on the walls of Hampton Court, where Mr Blair is hosting what he hoped would be a convivial summit meeting. His chosen theme is globalisation, but quite a few of his colleagues would be glad to keep it out. How a centralised and regulated Europe could hope to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s world is the question that Open Europe will ask. Mr Cameron and Mr Davis ought to pay attention. When one of them seizes the armband, the next match will start, and they might learn the knack of winning.

A wreath for Arnold

It is time to lay a wreath on the life’s work of Arnold Weinstock. The business that he built, renamed and ruined by his successors, has pursued a posthumous existence as Marconi, but the remnant that still mattered has now been sold to the Swedes. Other companies have been brought low by disastrous acquisitions — the Midland Bank, British & Commonwealth — but as a case study in self-destruction, GEC is in a class of its own. Arnold had stayed on too long and had kept the business too close to its old friends and customers in the public sector, so let’s spend the cash pile, let’s borrow money, let’s fly to America and splurge on the new technology, we must transform the company.... They did. The shareholders lost their money, the lending banks lost much of theirs and became shareholders, and half the proceeds of the Swedish sale must go to top up the pension fund. Nowadays, people live longer than companies. At least Arnold Weinstock did not live to see this truth borne out.

Pull the other one

Inhaling your own publicity is always dangerous, and Sir Gerry Robinson may have fallen victim to it. Otherwise he would scarcely have offered his services as Rentokil’s chief ratcatcher for a modest £57 million, all in shares. On these terms it would, I said, be an act of faith or gullibility for his fellow shareholders to see him as Mr Right. They seemed to agree, for he has withdrawn his offer, leaving Rentokil with a bill of £20 million for professional advice. This seems excessive. A letter — ‘Dear Gerry, pull the other one’ — could have achieved the same effect, and would have saved £19,999,999.70, allowing for the stamp.