Despite the Wilsonian wit, Blair stores up trouble

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ALL the party leaders had good weeks. That includes Mr Paddy Ashdown, who has not made an appearance in this column for some time. But the best week was had by Mr Tony Blair. His achievement was not only to make a very good speech on Europe but also to change government policy on exorbitant salaries in the privatised utilities. He was so surprised by this unexpected turn of events that, when Mr John Major announced it on Tuesday, he did not fully comprehend what had happened - or, at any rate, could think of no adequate response - and contented himself with the supplementary question he had already prepared.

But Mr Blair cannot claim all the credit. Most of it belongs to the Tory tabloids. When the Sun alone urges a course of action on the Government, it can be resisted. When the Daily Mail runs a campaign, it may or may not succeed. But when the Mail combines with the Sun to denounce a measure or a minister, we may be sure that the offending object will shortly be removed from the scene.

It has now become a convention of polite political conversation to admit, with regret or glee, that the press no longer enjoys the power it possessed in former times, that power having shifted to television. Well, it is not quite true, as a whole procession of former ministers who once enjoyed the Prime Minister's fullest confidence can testify.

If the tabloids ever come out in favour of a single European currency, who can tell how Mr Major will shift? But they are unlikely to do this; or not just yet. After all, it was they - having a mutually reactive relationship with Lady Thatcher - who were partly responsible for bringing about the present state of the Conservative Party which is causing so much inconvenience to Mr Major.

At a more exalted level, we have been hearing a good deal lately about "the nation state". This is in danger of replacing "the sovereignty of Parliament" as the cant phrase of the Tory Right. As I never tire of pointing out, though I may do before long, we surrendered the sovereignty of Parliament (strictly, of the Queen in Parliament) when we passed the European Communities Act 1972. The nation state is now ousting the sovereignty of Parliament not because the Euro-phobes belatedly recognise this irreversible change - indeed, they go on as if it had never happened in the first place - but because the nation state lends variety to what is meant to be elevated political discourse.

It was, I recall, first used to me in this sense four years ago by Sir Charles Powell, who had recently ceased to be Lady Thatcher's confidential clerk. Having spent some time in Brussels, he was (he said) suspicious of the European Community; and, having read History at Oxford, he was a keen supporter of the nation state.

I remember thinking at the time that this was an odd formulation. The nation state was not like the Arsenal Football Club or the abolition of the Monarchy: it was not something you supported. It was an ideal which attained its apogee in the 19th century and which, for most of this century, has been in decline - though recent events in the former Yugoslavia and what was the USSR show that it still retains its appeal for some people. The United Kingdom is clearly not a nation state, for it is composed of four nations, or five, if you divide the Northern Irish into Scots- Irish and Irish-Irish. Still less is Belgium one, divided as it is between Flemings and Walloons. I suggest a moratorium on the nation state.

I do not, however, expect Mr Norman Lamont to observe it. As far as he is concerned, the UK remains a nation state. Until a few years ago, he never showed much interest in these matters. But, having been sacked as Chancellor, and with his Kingston seat set to disappear, he suddenly acquired the greatest enthusiasm for the union with Northern Ireland. Similarly, he turned against the Maastricht Treaty which he himself had helped negotiate.

Though the treaty was signed on behalf of Her Majesty by Mr Douglas Hurd and Mr Francis Maude (who lost his seat in the election), it was Mr Lamont who negotiated the opt-out on a single currency. Mr Hurd reminded him of this on Wednesday evening. Apparently it made Mr Lamont very cross, and contributed largely to his vote against the Government. Mr James Naughtie raised the same question next morning on the Today programme. Mr Lamont said that matters had "moved on" since the treaty was signed. He has also said that the opt-out was designed to give us time to make up our minds, and that he has now made up his.

I generally find myself more sympathetic to party dissidents than to party leaders. Not so on this occasion. Mr Major and Mr Blair are being more accurate than Mr Lamont. In principle nothing has changed - except that perhaps the wisdom of bankers, on which the treaty is largely predicated, has ceased to be as self-evident as it may have seemed in 1991. Nor was the opt-out designed to give us time to make up our minds at this stage. It was intended to allow us to opt out when the other countries decided to opt in.

Mr Blair has come perilously close to saying that the opt-out provision was a mistake. This was not the Labour Party's position either at the time or during the passage of the Maastricht Bill. It was the opt-out on the social chapter to which the party objected and over which it nearly brought down the Government. Mr Blair made a speech which was in its wit and attack worthy of Harold Wilson. In other respects it was Mr Major who was the more Wilsonian figure. Mr Blair committed us to joining the single currency "if the economic conditions are satisfied . . . and if people can be persuaded on the necessary political consent". In my opinion he is storing up trouble for himself.

Meanwhile readers may be interested in how the rebels' league table is going. Four parliamentary divisions are now taken into account: the European money vote, the VAT vote, the fishing vote and last week's Labour motion. One point is awarded for an abstention, two for a vote against the Government.

Mr Nicholas Budgen is at the bottom of the league with two. He is joined by two newcomers: Mr Lamont, who, with a late surge, brings himself into contention for honours; and Mr William Cash, whose abstention last week, added to the one in the fishing vote, drags himself cautiously into the table. Sir Richard Body is on three, one point below Mr Michael Carttiss. Mr Christopher Gill, Mrs Teresa Gorman, Mr Richard Shepherd, Sir Teddy Taylor and Mr John Wilkinson all have five. Leading the table, with six points out of a possible eight, is Mr Anthony Marlow. Well done, Tony, and keep it up!

Inexplicably, in last week's column I made William Whitelaw Home Secretary in 1974. He was, of course, Employment Secretary, having - as I went on to explain - been brought back reluctantly from Northern Ireland to try to settle the miners' strike. Apologies all round.