Alan Watkins: He's not Uriah Heep. He's Uriah the Hittite

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Prime Minister's phase of being ever so humble, to which I referred last week, survived polling day by about 12 hours. It was certainly much shorter than the last period of political contrition, in which he was only peripherally involved, because he was not then leader of the Labour Party. The leader, which may surprise you - it could be a quiz answer - was Mrs Margaret Beckett. The period to which I refer followed the death of John Smith.

The Prime Minister's phase of being ever so humble, to which I referred last week, survived polling day by about 12 hours. It was certainly much shorter than the last period of political contrition, in which he was only peripherally involved, because he was not then leader of the Labour Party. The leader, which may surprise you - it could be a quiz answer - was Mrs Margaret Beckett. The period to which I refer followed the death of John Smith.

Someone (I think it may have been Mr Andrew Marr) invented the Spirit of John Smith, a hitherto unknown Highland brew of extraordinary potency which, among its other health-giving properties, was supposed to cause politicians to behave civilly to one another. As things happened, his spirit lasted for three days before supplies ran out and politicians became even more abusive towards one another than they had been before.

In drawing attention to Mr Tony Blair's even more brief interlude, I compared him to Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, who specialised in being ever so humble. But on reflection I feel that a more apposite comparison is to another, earlier Uriah, Uriah the Hittite, whose story is told in the second book of Samuel.

What happened was that King David took a fancy to his wife Bathsheba, seduced her and resolved to have him disposed of. To this end David instructed one of his generals: "Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten and die." So it was, though David suffered subsequent misfortunes. Even so, it is not an edifying tale. King David does not come well out of it. There can be no doubt about that.

In our modern version, the equivalent of the lovely Bathsheba is not a woman at all but the office of Prime Minister. Yet who is Uriah, and who David? In one version they are, respectively, Mr Blair and Mr Gordon Brown. It is, however, possible to construct an equally plausible framework of the future where it is Mr Brown who is put into the forefront of the hottest battle. For the moment, let us assume it is Mr Blair who is being placed in this dangerous position.

It is to be found in Europe, which was partly responsible for the demise of two Prime Ministers in Margaret Thatcher and John Major and one party leader in William Hague. They were all Conservatives. Labour has been relatively immune from similar troubles because the party hangs on to its leaders for longer and because Harold Wilson neutralised the issue for the earlier period, when the party was in government, by means of the 1975 referendum.

The question was not discussed at all during the election. Ministers were embarrassed by it and did not wish to arouse any hostility on the part of the Murdoch press; the Conservatives did not want to start another row among themselves; while the Liberal Democrats were well aware that for them it was an unpopular cause, as liable to damage them in the Conservative seats which, in the end, they failed to win as it was in the Labour seats where they found greater success. Iraq overcame the main parties' shyness, partly because the Liberal Democrats wanted to talk about it, even if belatedly, as they did not want to talk about Europe. But it was mainly because television and the press smelled out a piece of skulduggery in the form of the Attorney General's advice. There was no comparable incentive to make such a fuss about Europe - in any case, a notoriously tedious subject. So the politicians got away with their silence.

Mr Blair did, however, make clear, at one (or it may have been several) of his morning press conferences, that his promise to hold a referendum on the European constitution would still stand even if the French voted No. But then, Mr Blair also promised, several times in fact, that he would serve a "full term", which could only have meant four years. As I wrote last week, this was simply not practical politics. It was manifestly a promise meant for the public rather than for the party. Accordingly it was capable of being broken. So it has been. Mr Blair now formulates an orderly transfer of power at some time of his own choosing.

The Prime Minister, entirely through his own doing, now finds himself in the position of a discontented husband who tells his wife that he intends to leave her when the children are slightly older and better able to look after themselves. In such circumstances, the wife is surely entitled to tell him, if he feels like that, to take himself off with all speed. Few of Mr Blair's colleagues in the Government are prepared to go as far as this, though about 30 on the back benches would clearly be happy if he did go away now. But it has to happen some time. The present state of affairs is no way to run a sweet shop, even if that would be beyond the capacity of several members of the new Cabinet.

The natural time for Mr Blair to take his leave would be immediately after the European referendum, assuming he keeps his word and holds one irrespective of the French result. We are, of course, talking about the constitutional referendum. The one on the euro has been forgotten rather, put into storage. What we know is that it will take place, if it does take place, after the constitutional referendum. What we do not know is whether Mr Brown would, if he succeeded Mr Blair, be prepared to concede to his new Chancellor that power of veto over the euro which he has consistently claimed from Mr Blair. I suspect he would admit nothing of the kind. But for the moment it is enough to have the other referendum to worry about.

It is meant to happen in a year's time, though the constitution does not have to be ratified by the UK till November 2006. The referendum is supposed to be preceded - that is the present promise - by a Bill setting up the machinery and by lengthy debate in Parliament. With Mr Blair as Prime Minister during the campaign, the referendum would (so we are told by Europhiles and others) become a referendum on Mr Blair, and hence more likely to be lost. Much better to have the campaign led by the more popular Mr Brown! The trouble is that Mr Brown's heart would not really be in it. Mr Blair, the more dedicated European, should clearly be in the forefront of this particular battle.

Mr Brown's fight is quite different. It will be fought in the corridors of the Treasury. So far he has been a lucky Chancellor. He inherited a strong position from Mr Kenneth Clarke. And, as Mr Clarke said during the election, there comes a point when Labour Chancellors run out of money, as Mr Brown may do. Then it will be Mr Brown, not Mr Blair, who first finds himself in the forefront of the hottest battle.

Comments