The Week in Politics: Blair must beware or become a victim of his own vicious circle

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The Independent Online

In his first Commons appearance as Labour leader in 1994, Tony Blair taunted John Major over the split between him and his chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, on a euro referendum. "A divided government is a weak government, and a weak government is no good for Britain," said Mr Blair.

Yesterday, the wheel turned full circle as Mr Major exploited the divisions between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown over a euro referendum. "They are circling one another like two black widow spiders wondering whether they are prepared to mate, and they can't seem to make up their minds," Mr Major told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

In another strange turn of fate, Iain Duncan Smith is convinced that the Blair government is now plagued by the chronic symptoms of division and indiscipline that afflicted the Major administration. Mr Duncan Smith should know: he was one of the Maastricht Treaty rebels who, in Mr Major's view, injected poison into the Tory bloodstream. Today, the Labour Party appears split over Europe, while the Tories at last seem relatively united. Perhaps it is something to do with being in power.

The shrill and overhyped campaign by Eurosceptic newspapers against the proposed new blueprint for the European Union has given Mr Duncan Smith the confidence to end the Tories' self-imposed omerta on Europe. When the Cabinet met on Thursday for its first collective discussion on the decision on the euro, to be announced on June 9, ministers decided to launch a fightback to reassure the public the convention chaired by Valery Giscard d'Estaing will not result in a "United States of Europe."

The single currency and the new EU constitution have become a painful double headache for the Government. Ministers are worried that some people now believe Labour would deny them a referendum on the euro because they have seen headlines saying ministers have ruled out one on the EU constitution.

Mr Blair's problems have been compounded by divisions over the euro.

Peter Mandelson's public cry of frustration lifted the lid on the supposedly "united front" between Mr Blair and Mr Brown. The Prime Minister has told friends that the differences between them on the euro have been exaggerated and are smaller than over foundation hospitals.

Their fraught negotiations over the single currency have inevitably become entwined with the question of "the succession" - when Mr Brown might succeed Mr Blair. At his press conference on Thursday, Mr Blair denied my story saying that Mr Brown had turned down a deal under which he would make way for the Chancellor if he allowed a euro referendum. But officials who remain outside their discussions are convinced the succession has been on their secret agenda. "We tried it - but Gordon wouldn't have it," one Blair aide said yesterday.

To admit such horse-trading would, of course, blow a hole in the Government's much-trumpeted five economic tests for euro membership. Yet it is obvious the tests - made up in a Washington taxi by Mr Brown and his chief aide, Ed Balls, in 1997 - were designed to give the Government the flexibility to say Yes or No. In Labour's first term, the economics were not right. Now Mr Blair believes they soon will be, but politics has intervened in the shape of Mr Brown's caution.

However, a compromise is possible and pro-euro Cabinet ministers were in good spirits after Thursday's meeting. Mr Brown, who is furious at being caricatured as a Eurosceptic, was much more positive about the euro than his Cabinet colleagues were expecting. It seems his "not yet" verdict will be accompanied by a "route map" for entry, leaving open the crucial question of when a referendum might be held.

Europhiles hope next month's announcement will be followed by a long overdue debate about the euro's potential benefits. Mr Brown's five tests have not only given him an armlock on the euro decision, but have also allowed him to stamp out any flicker of debate. Mr Blair told his press conference he would relish a debate on Europe. But he has promised that before and then retreated.

It is no wonder that the Eurosceptics can make hay over the convention's proposals. Labour has been frightened of its own shadow for too long. It has imposed a crazy "catch 22" on itself, under which it cannot make the case for the euro until a referendum is possible. Surprise, surprise, it now looks impossible to win one. If Mr Blair is serious about achieving his euro goal, he will have to ensure that this vicious circle is broken on June 9.

¿ I hear that Neil Kinnock is backing Robin Cook to succeed him as a member of the European Commission when his five-year term of office finishes at the end of next year. After resigning from the Cabinet over Iraq, Mr Cook has kept his European credentials alive by retaining his post as president of the Party of European Socialists.

But Mr Blair may have an awkward dilemma when he chooses Britain's next representative in Brussels. Another former Cabinet minister is bound to be in his mind - Peter Mandelson. A dark horse could be John Monks, who stands down as TUC general secretary this month to become head of the European TUC.

¿ John Prescott is proclaiming the return of Cabinet government after he ensured ministers were properly consulted over the euro. He said this week: "I have never in my six years in Cabinet seen the Chancellor or the Prime Minister just say: 'This is what it is, get behind it.'"

Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister has forgotten the Millennium Dome. After Mr Blair left a Cabinet meeting, Mr Prescott told the ministers: "Tony wants it." Mr Blair was clearly outnumbered, but Mr Prescott declined to call a vote and the ill-fated project went ahead.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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