ONE of my favourite stories by P G Wodehouse is "Ukridge's Accident Syndicate". In the early years of this century our great newspapers used to vie with one another in offering to their subscribers insurance against accidents: so much for a broken arm, more again for a broken leg, a broken neck treated more generously still, death particularly recommended from the financial point of view, at any rate, of the deceased's relations.

It occurred to Ukridge that if enough of his chums took out subscriptions in the name of one of them, who then proceeded to have an accident, they could all share in the proceeds. He himself, as the financial brain behind the scheme, exempted himself from contributing. The unfortunate chum to suffer the accident would be chosen by lot.

The choice fell on Teddy Weeks, a struggling actor. They all had a farewell dinner, where Weeks announced he had never had any intention of allowing the slightest harm to befall him. Whereupon he jauntily left the restaurant, was knocked over by a passing lorry and received a large sum from the various newspapers. When Ukridge visited him in hospital to collect his and the chums' share in the proceeds, Weeks professed amazement that he should ever have had any part in a criminal conspiracy, and Ukridge left empty-handed.

Substitute Mr Tony Blair for Ukridge, and Mr Wim Duisenberg for Teddy Weeks, and we have a fair idea of what has been going on in Brussels over the past week. Mr Blair is a great one for coming up with wheezes of one sort or another. They are not intended to make money, as Ukridge's various schemes were, but to add lustre to the names of Mr Blair, of the Government, of the party he leads and - for there is no need to be small-minded - of the whole country.

He brought peace to Northern Ireland; or perhaps not; it is too early to say. He persuaded the embattled leaders of the Middle East to come to London, but was told by Mr Bill Clinton's emissaries that, while he was welcome to frolic on the margins, it was they who were really in charge or, rather, not in charge.

Days earlier Mr Blair, as this half-year's holder of the European Presidency, had tried to use his powers of intercession in a conflict between Mr Helmut Kohl of Germany and Mr Jacques Chirac of France. Mr Chirac wanted a Frenchman to be the first President of the European Central Bank; Mr Kohl presumably wanted a German, but was prepared to settle for a Dutchman, Mr Duisenberg, in his place.

The conflict, as we know, was not wholly about narrow nationalism, though that was certainly on display in abundance. It was also about differing notions of what a central banker should be like. Mr Kohl favours bankers who resemble cartoons from the 1930s, accoutred in top hats, diamond tiepins and heavy overcoats with astrakhan collars, and clutching large cigars shaped like missiles. Mr Gordon Brown prefers the same type. I speak metaphorically, of course. Hard-hearted they may be, but they are men of immovable integrity.

Mr Chirac likes a more pliant character. Oddly enough, his nominee in this case, Mr Jean Claude Trichet, is as rock-like a monetarist as the most Germanic banker could desire. This only goes to show that theories which may be true can nevertheless produce unexpected results in practice.

There is another reason why the French are so touchy. It concerns the language of the Community, or the Union as we must now, in a blatantly progagandist use of words, learn to call it. In 1971-73, in the final stages of our European entry, French officials said to their British counterparts, as French journalists remarked likewise to Fleet Street's higher ranks, that they would have to learn French, the designated language of the Community, as it then was.

The French told the Germans the same. The Germans, being more conscientious by nature than the British, and more diligent, duly set about learning advanced French. Alas, they could never get the hang of the accent. The French made fun of them. The Germans, unable to see the joke, were annoyed. "So," they said, "if like that it is, English we will speak." Or words to this effect. Accordingly the Germans imposed English on the French and on the other member-states as, in practice, the official language of the Union.

The Maastricht Treaty lays down that "the Executive Board [of the bank] shall comprise the President, the Vice-President and four other members". It goes on to say that "their terms of office shall be eight years and shall not be renewable".

Last week Mr Blair brokered what was then thought to be a firm arrangement whereby Mr Duisenberg, Mr Kohl's candidate, should serve for four years only. He would then be succeeded by Mr Chirac's nominee, who would serve not for another four years, so bringing the first eight-year Franco-Dutch spell to some kind of conclusion, but for a whole eight-year term. Mr Blair was accordingly trying to fix the occupant of the presidency in the year 2011.

In the House on Tuesday he tried to defend himself as best he could, saying that the deal was the only one to suit all sides. He even asserted that the provisions of the treaty were permissive, a guide merely: an eight-year spell was meant to be a well-intentioned suggestion and little more. But the article of the treaty uses the word "shall", not "may", and provides further that the eight-year period shall not be renewable.

To be fair to Mr Blair, and to Mr Chirac also, eight years does seem rather a long time, especially if, like Mr Duisenberg, you are 62. Most people in jobs of this kind are appointed for four or five years. Alas, or happily, eight years is what the treaty clearly specifies.

But Mr Duisenberg told the European Parliament on Thursday that he had no intention of keeping to the Blair-Chirac accord. He said it was "slightly absurd" for Mr Chirac to try to fix the succession to himself as President. "Given good health," he said, "then, yes, I could stay a full eight years ... I said I would serve at least until the end of the transition period, in July 2002, and I don't know how long beyond then I will serve. I do not intend to set a date."

In the Wodehouse story, Teddy Weeks goes on to become a success on the West End stage and marries into the aristocracy. Mr Duisenberg is too old to nurture comparable ambitions. Anyway he is a Dutchman. He may yet retire in four years, to be succeeded by Mr Chirac's man.

But the truth now is that yet another of Mr Blair's wheezes has come unstuck. I fully expect Mr Alastair Campbell to tell us that there never was a Blair-Chirac accord. It will not make the slightest bit of difference. Most voters do not understand the European bank. And the Conservatives cannot talk convincingly about it because they persist in a state of disunity over Europe. The local election results show that, if the Government's position is not quite so dominating as the opinion polls say it is, the Opposition is not yet on the high road of hope.

And yet I cannot help remembering that in 1964-67 Harold Wilson occupied much the same position as Tony Blair today. In 1965-70 few thought Edward Heath could ever win an election. But people stopped trusting Wilson, as they stopped trusting John Major in September 1992. So far, Mr Blair has been lucky.

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