The Edinburgh Summit: Major and media benefit from hype

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS and the media have a mutual interest in playing up the risks of conflict and non-agreement at Edinburgh tomorrow.

For journalists, speculation on impending disaster makes a more exciting story. But for the Government, the game is one of media manipulation. By hyping the 'razor's edge' difficulties faced by John Major this weekend, ministers and officials help to soften the impact of possible, embarrassing failure. More importantly, and more likely, they could also be underlining the skill of the Prime Minister in achieving an agreement that they, very privately, expect.

One senior Whitehall insider, supremely adept at news management, has recently been stressing the problems faced in the welter of preparatory meetings for Edinburgh. But, at the same time, he also slipped in the suggestion that Mr Major was 'brilliant' at summits. The Prime Minister, he said, showed remarkable skill in cutting through seemingly intractable difficulties, to bring warring factions together in peace, goodwill, and last-ditch deals.

Certainly, Mr Major has not underplayed his hand, with the Government comparing his task to that of re-ordering a jumbled-up Rubik's Cube so that each of the six sides contains the same, harmonious colour. In terms of domestic politics, however, Mr Major faces three interlocking problems: economic growth, Maastricht and leadership.

While Mr Major is an active supporter of a successful Gatt round, because of its positive impact on world trade, he does not share the view of some other EC leaders, and Labour, that Brussels should be allowed to spend its way out of European recession. The Prime Minister is not averse to EC members borrowing for infrastructural investment projects, as Norman Lamont did in his Autumn Statement, but he opposes large increases in EC grants, because Britain traditionally pays more in than it gets out.

For the same reason, Mr Major opposes the plans of Jacques Delors, the European Commission President, for a build-up to a 1997 EC budget of pounds 64.4bn. In his presidency role, the Prime Minister has made a counter-offer of pounds 60.5bn for 1997 - on which there could yet be room for compromise at Edinburgh, if that helps to grease the way to agreement on EC enlargement and Denmark's second referendum. In turn, the Danish question has an impact on Mr Major's Westminster difficulties with ratification of the Maastricht treaty. Having suggested that Commons consideration of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill would not be completed until after the second Danish referendum, the Prime Minister invested much in a successful resolution of that problem at Edinburgh.

There are some Westminster cynics who argue that, on the contrary, it would be to Mr Major's advantage if the Danes did not find a solution - giving the Conservative Government an escape route from its internal divisions. If the Danes did not ratify Maastricht, then the treaty would fall, and if the treaty fell, there would be no need for the British to ratify either.

Equally, on the sticky issue of re-entry into the exchange rate mechanism (ERM), there is little talk now of an early end to the 'suspension' of sterling membership - simply because it would aggravate the Conservatives' internal divisions. Lord Tebbit said in a Bradford speech earlier this week that Black Wednesday and sterling's withdrawal from the ERM had generated improvements in interest rates and consumer spending. What was needed now, he said, was Black Edinburgh - a breakdown that would block Danish ratification of Maastricht. 'With luck like that,' the former Conservative Party chairman added, 'I see a glowing prospect of a Conservative Government restored in the affections of the British people - and another election triumph for John Major in 1996.'

Mr Major could be forgiven for not seeing it quite like that. If his presidency collapsed in conflict this weekend, it would be portrayed by the media and Commons opposition as yet another blow to his leadership.

With the problem of Danish ratification handed over to the subsequent Danish presidency of the Community - and the possibility of no resolution until the next formal summit, at Copenhagen in June 1993, Tory demands for a withdrawal of British ratification legislation would become intense. The more likely outcome, however, is that an agreement of sorts will be cobbled together at Edinburgh, and that the Commons will return to the proposed five- month marathon committee stage on the legislation next month.

Some Conservative and Labour opponents of the treaty hope that the attempt to slide the Bill through Parliament will end in tears. Some of the supporters agree on that, but say that it will end in tears of boredom as the Chamber of the House is taken over by the likes of Bill Cash and Nigel Spearing, Tory and Labour masters of detail.

Meanwhile, Labour's front bench has agreed that it will take week-by-week decisions on the amendments coming up, though some senior opposition sources say that a decision has already been taken, in principle, that Labour will not back any amendments that wreck the treaty. John Smith and his closest colleagues are opposed to a referendum, and there is a strong view that Labour will abstain on the Bill's third reading rather than face an embarrassing three-way split in its ranks.

If Mr Major pulls off the political hat-trick - the Edinburgh coup, the achievement of some kind of recovery in the next 12 months, and ensuring the Westminster ratification of Maastricht - he will ensure his own survival, as Conservative leader, through to the next election. But, as Margaret Thatcher belatedly learned in 1990, the Tories do not love a failure. If he failed on all three, then an eventual threat to his leadership could emerge.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said in a Channel 4 Dispatches interview on Wednesday: 'I have never thought that we should let our policy be run as to whether the presidency is a success. The presidency is for six months, a summit is for 48 hours. Whether it is a success or not, that is a story for another 48 hours.' The Foreign Secretary knows better; that it would take Mr Major a long time to overcome the consequences of defeat at Edinburgh. But, again, by talking down the chances of success, Mr Hurd could well have been playing up the triumph to come.

Andrew Marr. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .page 19

German rate hopes dashed. . . .page 22

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