Mandelson comes out ... in favour of the single European currency

What he is doing in public is far more interesting than when he becomes one of those people `in the dark'
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The Independent Culture
THE DEBATE over the `outing' of Peter Mandelson is becoming almost as convoluted as Ron Davies' reasons for resigning from the cabinet. On one of the political programmes yesterday a shadow cabinet member argued that Mandelson's private life was utterly irrelevant, but the fact that the BBC had issued a memo instructing staff not to mention it meant that he felt obliged to come into the studio to protest. Meanwhile Nick Witchell, presenting a programme on Five Live, said as a "mere broadcaster" he had never seen the BBC memo, but nonetheless avoided discussion of the issue in a newspaper review on a day in which many papers led on the corporation's missive. This is getting very silly indeed. Peter Mandelson has every right to keep his private life to himself. Some newspapers and opposition politicians are using the BBC as an excuse to stir the pot under the guise of a story about the Corporation . But the BBC cannot expect all its programmes to totally ignore a debate which its own Newsnight programme had inadvertently provoked.

What makes all this even sillier is that the obsession with Peter Mandelson's private life and what he says as a near-legendary master of spin is diverting us from a far bigger story (it is at this point I fear I may have drawn you into this article under false pretences). For let me exclusively reveal that what Mandelson is doing and saying IN PUBLIC is far more interesting and will affect our lives far more directly than anything he is doing when he becomes one of those mythical `people in the dark'.

Nowadays politicians make speeches around the country assuming that not a word of it will be reported. They can afford, therefore, to be a little more candid. As Prime Minister, a despairing John Major once declared to an aide after a speech got very little coverage that he wished he had written it up as a memo and leaked it to a newspaper. The subject of the speech was Europe and it is that very same issue which is prompting some extremely interesting speeches and public statements from Mandelson. So far hardly anyone is noticing.

While a surreal debate rages about his private life, Mandelson is significantly changing the tone of the debate on the single currency. He is keeping within the perimeters of the government's approach to EMU (we will join when the economic benefits are clear and unambiguous, which - roughly translated - means that we will join when a referendum is winnable), but is making much the most positive noises I have heard from a senior minister about the importance of EMU being a success, and the dangers for Britain of staying out.

After a recent visit to the United States he told Breakfast with Frost that American firms were warning him of severe consequences if Britain did not sign up to EMU. He revealed to David Frost: "Some of our competitors in the international race for inward investment, which has never been more important for Britain than now, are starting to put it round that Britain's sort of losing interest in Europe and that is dangerous talk from our rivals because if American investors and others get the idea that we're not going to be right at the heart of Europe they may think twice about the sort of investment they bring to Britain."

Last week he developed these fleeting thoughts (the interview was not explicitly about Europe) into a robust defence of the Single Currency in a speech to the North West Chamber of Commerce: "The coming of the single currency will be a major step towards the creation of a genuine European single market. Across the whole Euro area - by far Britain's most important trading partner- prices will be quoted in the same currency. There will be no hiding place for high charges and consumer rip offs. There will be a massive encouragement to shop around for the best deal. And any business knows what that will mean - a massive stimulus to competition."

The debate has moved on from the Tory years to such an extent that these words caused no waves. They were not even reported. Imagine the row if a Tory cabinet minister had made such a speech during the dying years of the Major government. The silence shows that the government is doing rather well in subtly shifting the arguments away from the parochial hysteria of the past.

It is the unique style of this government only to make controversial decisions when the ground has been cleared so their implementation appears almost inevitable. Sometimes this is counterproductive. Too often initiatives are announced to a great fanfare, when there is little substance underneath. Most weeks ministers present us with the equivalent of those Xmas hampers which appear so enticing, but on closer examination offer little more than a satsuma and a jar of pickled onions.

Their intention (the ministers', not the makers of the pickled onions) is to change the public mood, before more substantial policies are announced to the electorate. After the razzamataz surrounding the welfare green paper, for example, most people assume that the taxing of child benefit has been announced, when at present it is merely being reviewed. By the time of its eventual implementation voters won't bat an eyelid.

Sometimes this strategy is counterproductive. There is a limit to how many times people can be left feeling short-changed. But over Europe, persuasion by stealth is working rather well. Mandelson is starting to put the case more explicitly in an unlikely alliance with Gordon Brown who will be speaking about Europe at the CBI annual conference today. The two ministers may not be bosom buddies, but they are at one on the single currency and the strategy to convert this inward looking island.

The common ground is more significant than their dislike of each other. After all, the last cabinet got on pretty well socially, but fell out over Europe. What is more Blair would not have a pro European Chancellor and a pro European DTI secretary (Margaret Beckett, Mandelson's predecessor was far more sceptical) if he himself was not sure of the direction he wanted to move.

Mandelson's brave words also challenge another widely held assumption about him, that he will not do anything to upset Rupert Murdoch and the Sun which, for their own reasons, are saying some supportive things about the new cabinet minister. The Sun and the rest of the general public do not need spin for guidance over the concerns of the interview and speech I have quoted from.

On many issues, not least those of constitutional change and welfare reform, there is a level of ambivalence in government policy. It is far from clear, for example, what will happen regarding the matter of electoral reform. But on Europe, out in the open so that everyone can hear, Mandelson is making the case for entering the single currency.

Without a word in private, in the dark, I reach a confident conclusion: Britain will be in the single European currency early in the next century.

Steve Richards is Political Editor of the New Statesman