One word from Murdoch and the PM panicked. That word was 'traitor'

Andy McSmith tells the inside story of why Tony Blair changed his mind on Europe - and how his U-turn has split the Cabinet
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair was not meant to stand in the Commons on Tuesday morning being taunted over the biggest policy U-turn in all his years as Prime Minister. He should have been in the basement of No 10 Downing Street, opening a canteen. But Mr Blair could not pop downstairs to sample coffee and doughnuts as he was out eating humble pie in the House, making a surprise announcement which could fundamentally alter Britain's relations with the rest of Europe.

Tony Blair was not meant to stand in the Commons on Tuesday morning being taunted over the biggest policy U-turn in all his years as Prime Minister. He should have been in the basement of No 10 Downing Street, opening a canteen. But Mr Blair could not pop downstairs to sample coffee and doughnuts as he was out eating humble pie in the House, making a surprise announcement which could fundamentally alter Britain's relations with the rest of Europe.

The Prime Minister was buffeted and humiliated last week, and he had a lot of apologising to do - not just to his staff for postponing the official opening of a canteen, but to cabinet ministers for failing to consult them on a major change of policy.

Telephone lines were buzzing last weekend as ministers rang one another, attempting to discover what Mr Blair's policy actually was. Some learnt it from the Prime Minister himself, who talked to the three cabinet heavyweights - Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Chancellor Gordon Brown and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott - and brought John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, and Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, into the discussions. The Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor were the ones who had argued most forcefully for a change in policy and whose influence has been reinforced as a result of the decision.

But in the rush to make a public statement, Mr Blair did not get round to consulting most of the rest of his Cabinet - let alone outside allies such as Michael Heseltine, whose support could have been useful in presenting the change.

The angriest reaction from within the Cabinet was that of Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education. He had thoroughly agreed with Tony Blair when the Prime Minister put the case against a referendum in the past. Asked by his local newspaper whether he had a view, Mr Clarke replied grumpily: "Yes, but not one I want to discuss with you." One insider said: "Charles is genuinely pissed off about the policy change."

Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, also sounded lukewarm when questioned. "There is an obvious risk in having a referendum that it may be dominated by whatever political issues there are at the time," he said. Others, such as David Blunkett, Home Secretary, Peter Hain, Leader of the House, and Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, accept the case for a referendum, but are dismayed at how it was handled. One Whitehall source said: "David Blunkett felt particularly sore that he wasn't consulted. It is one thing for Peter Hain to find out about it from the newspapers but David felt he shouldn't have had to."

If there are two phrases a Prime Minister hates to use they are "I have changed my mind" and "that's a good question, but I don't know the answer". The first opens him to attack as a ditherer; the second allows his opponents to question his competence. But it is undeniable that Tony Blair changed his mind and gave in to those who had been leaning on him, publicly or privately, to call a referendum. They included three leading cabinet ministers, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and, not least, the newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Mr Blair's advisers flatly deny the Prime Minister entered into a pact with the devil - Mr Murdoch, trading a referendum for a promise that his mass circulation newspapers would not follow the Daily Express in switching their support to the Conservatives. Members of Mr Blair's circle point to the remorseless treatment the Prime Minister received last week from The Sun as proof that no such deal had been struck.

However, there is no doubt that Rupert Murdoch's shadow hung over last week's events, which were set in train by an EU summit in Brussels four weeks ago. Before the summit, Mr Blair had coasted on the assumption that it could take years for the EU to agree on a draft constitution, postponing any domestic implications. But at the summit, British officials came into contact with their counterparts in Ireland, which currently holds the EU presidency, and realised that the Irish intended to have a draft constitution drawn up before the end of June.

This left Labour facing an election for the European Parliament in the same month that the Euro constitution moved closer to becoming a reality, making it probable that the party would spend the whole campaign fielding questions about whether the constitution threatened Britain's future as a nation state, and why it would not offer a plebiscite.

A taster of what the campaign might be like was offered by the coverage of the Brussels summit in that week's News of the World. The story under the headline "Treachery" began, "Traitor Tony Blair is to let Britain be run by ten unelected bodies in his EU surrender." The decision to use the word "traitor" was taken personally by Mr Murdoch.

After Brussels the Conservatives forced a vote in the Commons on whether there should be a referendum, with hearty backing not just from the Murdoch newspapers but also from Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail. The Government's case was ably summed up by Denis MacShane, Minister for Europe, who argued that it was for Parliament to decide which treaty arrangements Britain should have with other states, and that those who suggested otherwise were "gravediggers of parliamentary democracy". It was "extraordinary" that anyone should suggest the Commons "casually throw away its supreme duty to be the guardian of the interests of the British people and surrender itself to the populist plebiscites of the Rothermere press", he said. A few minutes later, 319 Labour MPs backed these sentiments by voting the proposition down.

Yet, within a week of that vote, The Sun's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, was in a position to forecast that Tony Blair was changing his mind and a referendum was on the way. He is thought to have been tipped off by Irwin Stelzer, a columnist for the Sunday Times' business pages who is close to Mr Murdoch. Mr Stelzer had visited the Prime Minister and warned him that if there was no referendum The Sun and The Times would withdraw support from Labour.

On 8 April, the Blairs flew off for a family holiday in Bermuda. Under the Caribbean sun, Mr Blair reflected on the 14 months remaining until the likely date of a general election, and saw the prospect of endless arguments which would make those who supported the new EU constitution look undemocratic. He decided to raise the matter at the first cabinet session after he got back.

However Mr Blair was due to travel to Washington and New York first, and while doing so he gave an interview to the Today programme. About a referendum, he replied: "You will have to wait and see what occurs on any of this, but our policy has not changed."

When a jet-lagged Prime Minister arrived back in Downing Street a week ago, he discovered these words had inspired Sunday newspapers, including The Independent on Sunday, to forecast that a U-turn was imminent. Saying nothing until Thursday's cabinet meeting was not going to work - particularly not with the Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, on the line insisting that an announcement of such importance be made through Parliament first.

The Prime Minister seems to have had no time for brainstorming with his advisers on the questions which might come up. He rightly guessed that the Conservatives would demand a referendum immediately. Mr Blair's staff admit that the "no" camp would win if a vote were held now. There is also the possibility that another EU state will veto the constitution, making a referendum unnecessary. Downing Street worked out a timetable which involved Parliament debating and ratifying the new constitution before it is put to a popular vote, thus providing a plausible reason for delaying the referendum until autumn next year. One howling problem was overlooked, however: Britain will hold the EU Presidency for the second half of 2005, making a referendum impossible before January 2006.

Mr Blair was prepared for questions about the delay. But he had no answer to what would happen after a referendum if the nation voted "no". During Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, he ad-libbed an answer which landed him in new difficulties. We would, he said, "be in exactly the same position as, for example, Ireland after its rejection, the first time round, of the Nice treaty".

After the Irish rejected the Treaty of Nice their government revisited the issue, put it to another vote, and won - so Mr Blair's listeners naturally jumped to the conclusion that he was saying that the British government would hold a second referendum if it lost the first.

This was not what he meant. Trying to clarify his meaning, he said at his Downing Street press conference the next day: "I simply meant by the Irish example that if there is a 'no' vote, obviously you would have to go back to the European Council and try to discuss the way forward. You can't tell what would happen in those circumstances. That is why it is very serious thing."

But then he added: "If the British people vote 'no', they vote 'no'. You can't then start bringing it back until they vote 'yes'." This was interpreted as a definite no to a second referendum. Again, a spokesman later said that the Prime Minister was not being so specific. Downing Street just does not know the answer.

Despite the muddle and pain of the past week, the Prime Minister's supporters believe that his promise of a referendum will help them through the June elections to a European Parliament. They also hope it will stop Europe from becoming an issue at next year's general election. "The most important thing is that it neutralises the Murdoch press," one of Mr Blair's advisers said. "It also puts Europe to one side and allows us to concentrate on the very good story we have to tell on our domestic record."

Some Tories acknowledge the U-turn as an adroit move, despite their enjoyment at watching Michael Howard humiliate the Prime Minster on two consecutive days. And some are alarmed that their chairman, Liam Fox, wants to fight the next election on the very issues - Europe, immigration and tax - that William Hague used so unsuccessfully in 2001.

To add to their worries, the former shadow minister and Eurosceptic Bill Cash was heard arguing last week that a referendum would give the Conservatives a chance to go for the "nuclear option" of ceasing to be a full member of the EU altogether.

One Shadow Cabinet member said: "The uncovenanted benefit for Labour is that this gets the Tories talking about Europe again, and anyone with half a political memory will know that is not good."

But others on the Labour side believed that even the medium-term tactical gain was not worth the damage that a "no" vote could do to Britain's role in Europe - or the damage Mr Blair has done by appearing to cave in so suddenly. One senior government source said: "In a sense it doesn't really matter whether people think that Murdoch is running the Government, or whether they think Gordon [Brown] and Jack [Straw] are. There is real nervousness about where this leaves Tony, and real gloom and doom about it."

IN THE KNOW

Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary

Converted to a referendum by opinions of his constituents

Gordon Brown, Chancellor

Had long argued for a referendum

John Prescott, Deputy PM

Sceptic won over by arguments of Mr Brown and Mr Straw

John Reid, Health Secretary

Warned Tony Blair he was on the wrong side of the argument

Patricia Hewitt, Trade Secretary

Pro-European, she had accepted the case for a public vote

IN THE DARK

David Blunkett, Home Secretary

Furious at learning of Blair's U-turn from the newspapers

Charles Clarke, Education Secretary

Pro-European but does not see a referendum as appropriate

Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary

Says that Blair would pay dearly for a 'No' vote in the referendum

Peter Hain, Commons Leader

Also learnt of Blair's change of heart by reading about it in press

Tessa Jowell, Culture Secretary

Not impressed by the leaks and muddle on the announcement

Are you a Europhile, a Europhobe or a Eurignoramus?

So, have you been paying attention? When the time does eventually come for the great referendum, will you be able to vote with confidence? Or is your knowledge of European politics as partial and threadbare as that of most British people? Try this simple questionnaire and find out just how much you've taken in.

1. What, or who, according to Jack Straw, is "highly desirable... but not absolutely necessary"?

a) Jordan

b) Britney Spears

c) Brad Pitt

d) The EU constitution

2. Who drafted the EU constitution on which the nations failed to agree last year?

a) General de Gaulle

b) Andrew Davies

c) Robin Cook

d) Valéry Giscard d'Estaing

3. In the future, the President of the European Council will be:

a) A complete shit

b) Elected every five years by a lot of Belgians

c) Some government minister from France, Italy, Germany or the UK but never from Uzbekistan

d) A member of the European Council elected for a two-and-a-half-year, renewable term, and could, in theory, be of any nationality

4. How many countries will be in the European Union by the end of this year?

a) About 70 of the blighters

b) Er ... how many stars are there on that gold-circle car bumper sticker? Is it 12?

c) At least 15, and of course there's another five East European states joining in a couple of months. So - about 19?

d) 25

5. What does Euro-citizenship mean?

a) Having the right to live in lots of dreadful foreign countries I'd rather die than even visit, and vote for lots of Krauts and Dagoes to pass laws regulating the shape of the root vegetables in Asda, Clapham Junction

b) Does it mean having a European passport from now on?

c) The ability to live and work anywhere and vote in local and European elections. So you can kick French politicians out if you don't like the look of them

d) No you can't. You can only vote on EU issues, not national politics in another country. And you'll still have British citizenship, with rights that are more important than EU citizens' rights

6. The Charter of Fundamental Rights is...

a) a pretentious farrago of well-meaning abstractions, covering up an attempt by Brussels to tell the British Parliament what's legal and what ain't

b) just like the Declaration of Independence. Liberty, fraternity, equality ... or was that the Gettysburg Address?

c) a declaration of human rights, including "dignity" and "citizenship" but we don't like the sound of any constitution that's written down on paper

d) a legally binding charter of rights open to interpretation by the European Court

7. The National Veto is an important weapon because

a) It stops the garlic-eating swine from telling us what to do about asylum-seekers

b) Saying no to everything is an attractive national trait

c) Without it, we'd be forced by the rest of the EU to bomb people we have no quarrel with (imagine).

d) The EU will forge a common policy about defence and immigration for all member states, and Britain needs to be able to opt out of it if necessary

8. What does "subsidiarity" mean?

a) Haven't the foggiest

b) Something to do with growing your own onions?

c) Getting some other country to subsidise your farmers

d) "The concept of a central governing body permitting its member states, branches etc to take decisions on issues best dealt with at local or subsidiary level" ( Chambers dictionary)

9. What will be the most noticeable effect of our signing up?

a) We'll all have to drive on the right in future

b) Fantastically cheap French wine and Italian cars

c) English women will grow hair under their arms

d) The European Parliament will have the power to vote on all EU issues

10. What will Brussels seek to "harmonise" in the future?

a) They'll make Wagner compulsory over the Tannoy at major train stations across Europe, you mark my words

b) They'll insist that only sun-dried tomatoes are sold in supermarkets

c) They'll insist on every member state adopting the same economic and unemployment policies no matter how crackpot or extreme

d) They will harmonise "turnover taxes", excise duties and other forms of indirect taxation, but Britain can still opt out of them if they wish

Your euro-rating

Mostly (a) - You're a gibbering, neurotic Europhobe - hostile to change, suspicious of outsiders, wary of foreigners. You think Big Ron should be England manager. Do you by any chance subscribe to the Daily Mail?

Mostly (b) - You're a floating voter, but you're fantastically ignorant. You haven't much of a clue about the issues involved. You are terribly English.

Mostly (c) - You've picked up a few random bits of information and are well meaning but confused. It's quite possible you're a member of the present government.

Mostly (d) - You're a smart, knowledgeable, well-balanced Citizen of Europe, with a startlingly sophisticated grasp of all the issues. Unfortunately, you do not exist.

John Walsh

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