Speech shows Blair will not be 'yesterday's man'

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Indy Politics

The speech lacked his usual rhetorical flourish, contained few specifics and managed to include only three sentences on the crucial issue of the euro, but Tony Blair's address in Birmingham yesterday on Britain's role in Europe was his strongest declaration of intent on the single currency.

Although he adhered to the now-weary formula of the need meet the Treasury's five economic tests, Mr Blair set out the political case for euro membership in passionate yet methodical terms.

By giving a potted history of past failures of nerve by British premiers, he made plain that he wanted to be remembered as a man who led his country into the heart of a powerful and integrated European Union.

The money markets may not have soared on the back of it but his audience was left in no doubt that he had abandoned the nervy caution of the previous parliament.

Mr Blair referred to the need for a historic vision of Europe, to reverse "the failure of imagination" of previous leaders and the fact that "yesterday's heritage did not guarantee today's influence or tomorrow's prosperity". He gave a clear impression that the process of making an assessment of the five tests, followed by a referendum, was now inexorable.

It may have been a coded rather than specific message on the euro, but the speech delighted Europhiles because it took on the central argument about sovereignty that will dominate any referendum campaign. "Britain gains from sharing sovereignty," he declared. He knows that, as well as convincing the public on the economic advantages of the single currency, he also must neuter Tory claims that Britain will cease to be an independent nation once it has joined.

Certainly, Mr Blair's speech marked a point of no return on the issue and contrasted with his more measured approach before the June general election.

With the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, deciding as early as October 1997 to kill the prospect of a referendum in the past parliament, the Prime Minister, in effect, avoided the subject until this year.

Ironically, Mr Blair set the hare running by accident in February, when challenged by William Hague at question time to explain Labour's promise to assess its five tests "early in the next parliament". Momentarily flummoxed, Mr Blair blurted out: "Early in the next parliament means exactly what it says. Early in the next parliament would, of course, be within two years."

By the summer, Downing Street had made up its mind to take on the Chancellor, with Mr Blair planning to make a series of speeches in the autumn to harden his support for the single currency.

The first big pro-euro speech was scheduled for the TUC on 11 September but had to be pulled because of the atrocities in New York and Washington. The text of his speech, much of which was similar to yesterday's, planned to say that failing to join the euro would be an "absurd denial" of self-interest. "Provided the economic conditions are met, it is right that Britain joins," he was to say.

Mr Blair instead made his boldest statement on the issueat the Labour Party conference in Brighton. If the economic tests were met "we should have the courage of our argument, to ask the British people for their consent in this parliament", he said.

While the Chancellor was more pessimistic on the chances of winning a referendum, Mr Blair believed that he could lead and win a six-month campaign. His "courage" remark was a clear warning that he would take on both the Eurosceptic press and the opinion polls.

Although Mr Brown used his CBI speech this month to stress the need for caution, Mr Blair struck a more positive note when he addressed the conference one day later.

But the speech in Birmingham was what many believed marked a watershed in Mr Blair's push for the euro. This was not a speech designed to set the FTSE 100 alight but it did warn the world that this was a British prime minister who was determined not to become "yesterday's man".