This weekend Cabinet ministers have their heads down reading the Treasury documents on the euro. For nearly six years they have not been allowed to utter more than a few words on the subject. Now they have to read one and a half million words in the space of 48 hours: before breakfast some light reading on the stability pact; by lunchtime a few thousand words on convergence; before dinner a chapter or two on the European Central Bank. Tomorrow individual ministers will discuss their responses in tri-laterals with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, the equivalent of a small reading group. "I found the chapter on flexible labour markets especially moving ..."
There has been much speculation about the unusual outbreak of Cabinet government and whether, in particular, this eccentric assertion of wider ministerial responsibility is a victory for Tony Blair in his negotiations with Gordon Brown. Before we come to that I have a more immediate response. The ministerial labours this weekend highlight the absurdity of holding a referendum over an issue as complex as the euro. Most of us cannot decide what socks to wear each morning. How are voters – who probably do not give much thought to the stability pact – going to make an informed decision on the euro? I can think of no issue less suited to an unpredictable plebiscite than the single currency.
The need to win a referendum before Britain can join puts all the other manoeuvring between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor into context. Both of them lost partial control when they decided to offer a poll on the euro while still in opposition in 1996. An increasingly desperate John Major started the madness by pledging a referendum if he ever took Britain into the euro (some hope). He did so with the reluctant agreement of his chancellor, Kenneth Clarke. Understandably, Blair felt obliged to follow suit against the initial wishes of his shadow chancellor, Brown. Clarke and Brown, with their economic briefs, realised instinctively at the time that the promise of a referendum, while politically necessary, was a potential hazard. The pledge to hold a referendum is a useful device for neutering politically controversial issues. The problems begin when a government has to hold one.
Given the complexities of the euro itself and the added pressure of the need to win a referendum, Blair and Brown have no choice but to proceed with some dextrous delicacy. In spite of themselves, that is what they are doing. I know this is not the received wisdom, probably even in their own camps, where both sides are better known these days for throwing political grenades at each other. They are more united and focused than they realise.
To take the micro picture first – and there is nothing more micro than a Cabinet minister sitting at his or her desk this morning reading several hundred pages on the stability pact. When the details of the Cabinet involvement were announced last week they were immediately viewed through the prism of the Blair-Brown split. Some of the Prime Minister's associates portrayed the development as a victory, almost as if he had won the referendum. Brown was having none of it. He popped up in a series of interviews to declare that the wider Cabinet involvement was what he had planned all along. He had been looking forward to these cosy chats with his Cabinet colleagues for years.
This is getting silly. It is hardly a prime ministerial triumph to persuade his chancellor to meet the Cabinet. Brown could never have got away with presenting his verdict to the Cabinet on the morning of his statement next month. The meetings between Cabinet ministers and Blair and Brown scheduled for the next few days would have had to take place in some form even if it was for cosmetic purposes. It is now Blair's intention to involve other Cabinet ministers more directly in preparations for the euro. That is sensible, as several of them have departmental briefs in which the euro plays a central role. The wider involvement will irritate Brown, but it is not a significant defeat. In the end the Prime Minister cannot win a referendum without the endorsement of his chancellor and, to be more precise, this particular chancellor.
Equally silly is some of the pressure being applied to Blair by ardent supporters of the euro. Senior figures from Chris Patten downward warn that Blair will appear hopelessly weak if he does not virtually guarantee a referendum in this Parliament. Blair likes to appear a "bold" leader, so his old allies are beating him with a particularly punishing stick. But, as the grotesque war against Iraq demonstrated, a desire to appear strong is not the same as being strong or adopting the right approach. It will not be a "defeat" for a "weak" Blair if next month's statement is accompanied by detailed policies that make Britain's entry to the euro possible fairly soon, but without a specified date.
And that is what will happen. In Brown's Budget, largely ignored because of the war, he announced a series of initiatives for Britain's housing market and labour flexibility in order to prepare for the euro. They should have been announced years ago, but they were not. We are where we are. In October 1997, when the euro was kicked into the long grass, neither Blair nor Brown announced policies to make single currency entry feasible now. They passively announced that a series of economic tests would be undertaken. This means that some of Brown's concerns about the economic implications of immediate entry are valid and shared to some extent by Blair.
It was the Prime Minister, not Brown, who insisted on adding the phrase in October 1997 that Britain would join the euro only when it was "clearly and unambiguously" in its economic interests. At the same time Blair's desire to join the single currency is not entirely dismissed by Brown, who is not a eurosceptic but is obsessively cautious about getting the timing of entry right. The pair of them are tiptoeing awkwardly towards the single currency, just as they tiptoed into increasing public spending and taxes. If one of them kicks the other in the ankles, both of them fall.
For all the storms in the coming weeks, here is the reality constraining them and us. If they had focused on preparing for euro entry over the past five years, they could have held – and won – the referendum by now. Both of them chose to pretend that the issue did not exist. At least the pretence is now over. That is progress and the start of a new phase. Ask any Cabinet minister wrestling with those one and a half million words this weekend.Reuse content