All columnists have their hobby horses. These are not so much constant obsessions as old standbys: subjects to which they can return in a thin week, when nothing much else seems to be going on. No doubt I have one or two of my own. They do not, however, include the relationship between Mr Tony Blair and Mr Gordon Brown. Others - no names, no strained smiles or uneasy jokes - seem able to write about little else. Week after week it goes on, like a river that remains mysteriously in full flow irrespective of the season or the weather.
To stem this swelling torrent I suggest a play, Waiting for Gordon. Mr Blair would be on stage throughout. There would be no need for him to be dressed as a tramp. His ordinary clothes would suffice, with those china mugs to which he seems so attached as props. He would see various other characters, similarly attired: not too many of them, but certainly including Mr Peter Mandelson. The point would be: Gordon never comes.
What makes matters more complicated to most voters is that there are now two referendums on Europe in the air. Neither is likely to come about this side of the election. One is long promised by the Government. It is about whether we should join the euro. The other is not promised at all. Indeed, Mr Peter Hain, whose precise responsibilities in relation to Europe continue to elude me, says confidently it is never going to happen.
For this apparently plain speaking Mr Hain has been attacked - for arrogance, dictatorial tendencies and similar failings - by those newspapers which are now calling for this other referendum. It is supposed to be about whether the United Kingdom should be a full party to the new European constitution.
The constitution is now being worked out by the former French President, Mr Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Some of us may have thought that Giscard had long gone to a Better Place. But he turns out to be only 77 and is beavering away like billyo on what is now called the European convention. It will turn into the constitution sometime in 2004, probably towards the end of the year or even later if past progress on European matters is any guide.
Even so, the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun have seen enough to conclude that the British way of life is under threat. The Times has yet to show its hand. Judged by past performances, for example over Iraq, it will follow Mr Rupert Murdoch's general approach in the leader columns but allow, even encourage, a diversity of view among its many columnists.
In progressive circles there are hysterical voices to be heard proclaiming that these papers, with the possible exception of The Times, constitute a grave threat to our democracy. The Times could scarcely be included because there is no more loyal and obedient servant of our beloved Prime Minister in the whole of what used to be (and, oddly, still is) called Fleet Street. The other three papers seem to me less a grave threat to our democracy than a valuable addition to it. They keep ministers on their toes. If Mr Blair is frightened of the Mail and The Sun, as he is - calling for "eye-catching initiatives" to attract at least the Mail - that is Mr Blair's affair. If he has accepted their view that all asylum seekers are a menace to society, that is his choice when he did not necessarily have to make it. He is, after all, Prime Minister.
These papers are performing a useful function in another way; or perhaps it is a different aspect of the same function. They are mainly filling the role of an unprecedently weak opposition. Admittedly being a strong opposition is difficult. There have been only two effective leaders in living memory: Harold Wilson in 1963-64 and, more arguably perhaps, Mr Blair in 1994-97. With both of them, what made their periods so successful was the certainty (unjustified in Wilson's case) that they would win the approaching election convincingly.
There is no such certainty with Mr Iain Duncan Smith; any more than there was with Mr William Hague. Au contraire, as George Brown used to say when he was Foreign Secretary. No one believes Mr Duncan Smith is going to win the next election except, possibly, Mrs Duncan Smith. But prospects do not look quite so stark as they did before the local elections. And now, by performing the Opposition's function for him over the European constitutional referendum, some of the papers have encouraged Mr Duncan Smith even more.
He has taken up their cause with enthusiasm. At consecutive sessions of Prime Minister's Questions, he has succeeded in embarrassing Mr Blair on the subject. Other ministers have appeared similarly uneasy. Why, Mr Duncan Smith might almost be enjoying the job at last.
The Government's response has been rather like that of the small boy who was accused of breaking the window. The window isn't broken, miss; I didn't do it; and anyway it was an accident. The favourite phrase is "tidying up". It is in the long, dishonourable tradition of what successive governments have been prepared to admit publicly about the effects of European treaties, conventions or legislation.
It started with the Heath government in 1970-72, when it was mendaciously given out that our accession to the Community would have no effect whatever on national sovereignty. Certainly the contrary evidence was there in the Bill which duly became the European Communities Act 1972. But as most people treat statutes as if they were Sanskrit (which they often seem to be), few understood what had happened. The Europhobes can likewise be guilty of suppression or even of straight untruths. For instance, the Human Rights Act had nothing at all to do with Brussels but was based on the Strasbourg Convention which had predated even the Common Market.
Most referendums have curious origins. Thus Labour's 1975 referendum originated in Mr Tony Benn. The promised referendum on the euro derives from Mr John Major's party-uniting promise which Labour imitated, perhaps foolishly. My guess is that there will be no referendum on the European constitution. This does not mean, however, that the Government is out of trouble. Under the European Parliament Elections Act 1978, all European treaties require parliamentary approval. It was this which was the basis of the great Maastricht marathon of 1992-93, where the Tory "bastards" almost brought down Mr Major's government. It is difficult to see how any new European constitution could be validated without a similar performance. And, lurking in the bushes, there are Mr Blair's bastards too.Reuse content