The Prime Minister was right first time: avoid a referendum because you'll lose it

Tony Blair has taken his europhile supporters for more rides than a donkey on Blackpool beach
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is a contradictory fellow. He goes to the White House, holds the world's cameras captive in his gaze and delivers a moving sermon. He wants the rest of us to share his conviction that he always sees great issues in moral terms. For a moment, we are almost persuaded. Then the focus switches to the European constitution, where even by this Government's standards, the last few days' manoeuvrings have been shameless in their cynicism.

Tony Blair is a contradictory fellow. He goes to the White House, holds the world's cameras captive in his gaze and delivers a moving sermon. He wants the rest of us to share his conviction that he always sees great issues in moral terms. For a moment, we are almost persuaded. Then the focus switches to the European constitution, where even by this Government's standards, the last few days' manoeuvrings have been shameless in their cynicism.

Up until a fortnight ago, every minister who spoke on the subject was emphatic; there would be no referendum on the European constitution. The snarling of Charles Clarke, the pseudo-intellectuality of Denis MacShane, the bumptiousness of Peter Hain, the piousness of Tony Blair; all the voices were conveying the same message: no, never. Then suddenly, the certainty was no more. For "no", read "maybe"; for "never", "Number 10 is still thinking through the options on timing".

Needless to say, this dramatic reversal of policy was sneaked into the public domain as surreptitiously as possible. A toe in the water here, an unattributable briefing there, a child's kite flying over the garden of Number 10; that is how this Government deals with major constitutional proposals. Even so, ministers will now find that they have a lot of words to eat.

After all, it is only a fortnight since Mr Blair seemed ready to take the field as the champion of the Crown in Parliament against the dangerous populist forces of plebiscitary democracy. There is a respectable case to be made against referendums and the Prime Minister would not have lacked support, especially in the House of Lords, where he would have found a number of distinguished figures who were eager to defend the primacy of Parliament.

It has been too easily assumed that the Government would have had to use the Parliament Act to override their Lordships' insistence on a referendum. The vote could have gone either way, and as usual in the Upper House, the quality of the speeches would have had a crucial influence on the outcome. Not all Liberals in the Lords share their Commons colleagues' enthusiasm for referendums, and they would have been reinforced by the likes of Geoffrey Howe (Lord Howe of Aberavon) and David Hannay (Lord Hannay of Chiswick), one of the more formidable diplomats of recent decades. Mr Blair would have had powerful allies - whom he has now abandoned, for the umpteenth time.

There has been no more amusing sub-plot in recent politics than the constant disappointments which the Tory europhiles, City europhiles and other devotees of the great European project have had to endure at Mr Blair's hands. So often, they have been ordered to mobilise; the Prime Minister was about to fire the starting-gun for the referendum on the euro. They promptly hired offices, set up organisations and prepared propaganda. Then the movement order was cancelled. The campaigning documents gathered dust, the offices marinated in idleness, the effort and money had all been wasted. The single currency was as far away as ever.

The europhiles had to swallow their frustration as the euro receded, but at least the Prime Minister had given them one assurance. There would be no referendum on the EU constitution. Now even that is about to be dishonoured. There is an irony here. In their political, commercial and diplomatic lives, Sir Michael Bishop of British Midland Airways, Kenneth Clarke MP, Niall FitzGerald of Unilever, Lord Hannay and Lord Howe are the last people who could be accused of naivety. Yet Tony Blair has taken them for more rides than a donkey on Blackpool beach. To switch equine metaphors, no public figures have been more cruelly deceived since Boxer, the horse in Animal Farm. One wonders how long they will put up with it. As Margaret Thatcher could testify, there are limits even to Lord Howe's patience. Mr Blair would be foolish to assume that his high-minded allies could always be taken for granted.

At present, the Prime Minister is more preoccupied with the low-mindedness of the voters. He was forced to contemplate a change of stance on the referendum, because a refusal to do so might cost him the next election. But there has been an element of denial and an attempt to disguise a surrender as a new opportunity for moralising. Mr Blair has now virtually persuaded himself that a referendum would not be a concession to force majeure and electoral reality. It would be a chance to make the case for Europe; to use his eloquence to lead the British people away from fog-bound insularity towards the sunlit uplands of the European future.

That is how he will address his audiences and when he does so, his message will always be received with rapture, on one trivial condition: that it should be delivered to his own shaving-mirror. In any larger gathering, scepticism will kick in.

Tony Blair will face a similar problem to the one William Hague encountered in 2001. Mr Hague told the voters that they had a week to save the pound. "No we don't," they replied, "we've been promised a referendum." Mr Blair will say that the choice is between accepting the constitution and leaving the EU. "No it isn't," the voters will answer: "we have the right to stay in the EU and reject this constitution. That is what we will do."

There is a further parallel between Messrs Blair and Hague. In 2001, a lot of voters distrusted William Hague's judgement. Over the past couple of years, there has been a widespread loss of confidence in Tony Blair's. The days are gone when he could say, "Trust me, I know what's good for you," and hope to receive any response but mocking laughter.

Some of his colleagues know this, even if Mr Blair does not. There are already signs of renewed enthusiasm for the long grass into which the European constitution seemed to have disappeared last December. Ministers are reassuring one another that a number of EU countries will be holding referendums. Surely at least one of them is bound to reject the constitution, thus diminishing our embarrassment.

Tony Blair would be horrified to learn how few of his senior colleagues share his own belief in his continuing powers of persuasion. They understand, even if he does not, that he has lost a great deal of moral authority in the country by his conduct over the Iraq war. In the Rose Garden of the White House, Mr Blair may be able to convince himself that he can still get across his message to the British people. There are not that many Labour MPs who agree - and the same will apply on Europe.

Tony Blair has almost accepted that he would have to call a referendum on the EU constitution because the British people will insist that he does so. He is right. But the voters are not only so obdurate because they believe that they should have the final say. They also want to reject the constitution itself. Nothing that Tony Blair could say in any referendum campaign will persuade them otherwise.

The Prime Minister held out against a referendum because he feared that he would lose it. He was right.

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