How Iain Won\’t Save Britain

Is Gordon Brown a Eurosceptic? Well of course he\’s not, but every time that question is asked of him, or the label is tentatively applied to him, what\’s really meant is: the Chancellor\’s not as keen as the Prime Minister to replace Sterling with the Euro. Whether this distinction exists because the Chancellor, having sat at the apex of a reasonably successful economy for the last six years, is simply being pragmatic about such a leap in the dark, or whether he does indeed have a profound and growing philosophical difference with Blair on the question of entry, or even whether it\’s simply a positional thing, suiting Mr Brown\’s political needs in his incessant campaign to one day succeed to Downing St, no one can know. The Chancellor certainly doesn\’t. For there isn\’t, in truth, the possibility of a constant, comprehensive answer. Opposition to the Euro, and a reasonable uncertainty about what adherence to it (talking of \’membership\’ is now starkly bogus baby-talk) might mean for the United Kingdom, has today the status of a well-established British political fact. The people who have to face up to whether we should enter – the cabinet i.e. the country\’s leading politicians – do so merely because our ongoing membership in the EU supplies a dynamic to consider it. In other words, this would not, given its unpopularity and uncertainty, be in any way a live political issue if we weren\’t in the EU, or if the Euro has never come (or stayed) in being. So, whether Britain tries to get rid of the pound depends on whether the cabal governing us decides, between themselves, to gamble on putting the issue to a (pre-pledged) referendum. Whether the government\’s defeated in that effort depends, of course, on one thing: the quality of the opposition.

Never mind the \’Cabinet battles\’ (as we won\’t, should the Cabinet decide against entry, and hence there\’s no need for a referendum, thus meaning we can\’t get excited about something that hasn\’t happened), if, through whatever combination of political circumstances, the button is pressed, it will be down to . . . Iain Duncan Smith to save the day. This gives me pause for thought. In fact, if there is one man in Britain who can pull off the near impossible (opposition to adopting the Euro as our currency is well and consistently over 60%), it\’s Mr Duncan Smith leading the pro-Sterling campaign. Which is why one ought to be nervous, now that the Tory leader has \’thrown down the gauntlet\’ to a \’divided government\’ and \’confidently challenged\’ them to hold a referendum on the pound versus the Euro. Logically this should presuppose (the currently absent) definitive government commitment to imminent entry, but logic and Iain Duncan Smith stopped being on speaking terms some time ago. Or as he put it himself:

\’I believe that the British people agree that joining the Euro would be bad for Britain. We don\’t need a referendum to tell us that . . . So if Tony Blair still believes we should join the Euro . . . then he should say so, and get on with calling a referendum to find out exactly what the British people think\’.

Never mind all the hoary, traditional Tory reasons for thinking that this would be a bad idea – our parliamentaryist dislike for referenda; our supposed disinclination to waste public funds (a responsible government doesn\’t need a ballot to confirm its decision not to do something); and so on unto infinity – there is the awful fear that a contest fronted on one side by Tony Blair, and on the other side, by Iain Duncan Smith, would be an uneven one. The television debates don\’t bear thinking about.

A party committed to, as a matter of the highest political imperative, preventing Sterling\’s substitution by the Euro would, obviously, do nothing to risk bringing that terrible situation into being. Having such a vote now would be that dreadful risk. In fact, the case is there to be made (British enthusiasts for the Euro make it, sotto voce, all the time) that every day Tony Blair neglects to put his personal authority at the disposal of such a campaign, he retards its chances of success – that, had he done so early on his premiership, he could well have \’bounced\’ the foolish public into saying yes. That\’s at any rate what I think, and so forgive me for some limited cynicism about why the Conservative leader thinks that calling for a referendum, let alone ending up with one, is a characteristic error, derived in this instance from quite misplaced electoral self-belief. We can although rest confident, for if there is one thing the government\’s not going to do (it surely would have done, were it going to), it\’s trigger the referendum it\’s pledged before any British accession to the Euro. All the reasons that militated against this decision in the past hold good (or better), and the chief one remains unaltered: the potential \’gain\’ (the Euro) is nowhere near being worth the same as the potential loss (the political consequences for a government\’s authority of contesting, then losing such a vote). This was a gamble that Tony Blair, with his greater stock of political capital could have risked until about 1999, it is not a defeat he could realistically afford to risk now.

What Europe Can Do for the Tory Party

Conservative Central Office ineptly introduced Mr Duncan Smith\’s gambit with the words that this was him \’breaking his silence\’ on the question of the Euro. This is true, and the silence, in terms of managing a fractious party, was admirable. Yet he was only able to be a quiet man in this regard because his internal opponents on this issue weren\’t putting any questions up to him. This was partially because, in the absence of possible adherence to the Euro being a live political issue, there wasn\’t any tactical necessity for them to do so. Much, much more important in terms of the Clarkeites keeping their gobs shut was the almighty kicking they, and their hero, received in the 2001 leadership election. Iain Duncan Smith, on the previously vexed issue of the Euro, enjoyed the peace that only overwhelming battlefield triumph can bring. In this, as in so many other aspects, Mr Duncan Smith seems determined to throw it all away. Squandering the precious stuff of, there not being any point in Tories fighting over European issues, is not, however, something the Conservative leader can do on his own – he requires the Government to provide with actual European issues on which to divide the Tory party. The Euro is not going to be such an example.

There is hope amongst the Tory leadership that Giscard\’s Convention will be the opportunity to resume attacks on the Blairite regime from the Eurosceptic right. This remains to be seen, as there is every chance, contrary to excitable sceptical opinions, that whatever comes out of the Convention is liable to be a long way off any Euro-federalism greater than what we\’re already subject to just by being in the present EU. Which is to say, if we can put up with being in the EU as it currently is, we\’re not likely to stalk out of what the national governments are probably going to allow to emerge from the Convention. Unfortunately then the \’wider offensive\’ promised against Europeanism may turn out to be a Tory Salonika, never getting off the ground, whatever the intrinsic merits of the might-have-beens of this particular plan. And, for one, I can\’t say that I reside much faith in the campaigning abilities of \’general\’ Ancram.

Five totally fraudulent tests govern whether Gordon Brown will sign up to Tony Blair risking a vote on whether Sterling should be abolished in favour of the Euro. In truth, all that stands between us and such a poll is the size of that risk: it is enormous, and gets bigger each day for Tony Blair. It will never happen during his premiership. The solitary circumstance – and this, if it is to be him, includes Gordon Brown, as he has no personal ideological bias against it – where a Prime Minister would take this risk, will come when Tony Blair is succeeded in Downing Street by some other Labour politician. This is not a risk therefore that Britain is going to have to face for a long time to come.

– Christopher Montgomery

Read more by Christopher Montgomery