Leading article: Brace yourself, Tony, for a bumpy landing

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The Independent Online
It is a fair bet that more Britons than ever have been away on holiday this summer, that more than ever have bought a new car, that a lot have spent money on their houses, and that more people feel good about themselves and their country than has been the case for a long time. With a strong economy, rising house prices, and a fresh, dynamic government led by the youngest prime minister for 185 years, the nation ends the holiday season extraordinarily at ease with itself. It seems that John Major's admirable ambition has been realised, politically posthumously.

But as the nights close in and a damp autumn chill wets the air, the sense of national confidence, of self-easiness, seems eerily provisional. It was obvious, on the morning of 2 May, that the future was not what it used to be. A yearning for change had produced a political earthquake, but even now the shape of the new landscape remains shrouded in mist. Tony Blair has, unusually for an incoming prime minister, not yet been tested, and so his record popularity rating contains a large "benefit of doubt" element. Harold Wilson in 1964 had already faced a sterling crisis and made the fateful decision not to devalue. At this point in the last parliament, the pound was already on the slide. So far, Mr Blair has faced little more than an unscheduled joke about a crab and the eruption of a Caribbean volcano.

As with the Government's popularity, our sense of economic well-being is fragile. Job security is not what it used to be, either, and this recovery is suffused with a much grittier sense of the need to remain competitive in the world economy.

As we return from the fantasy world of August to the real world of September, we feel good, but we are waiting for something to go wrong. So what could be about to go pear-shaped? At this point it would be sensible to enter the caveat that all predictions are wrong, shares can go down as well as up, and so on. In the Sixties, futurologists confidently predicted a future fuelled by nuclear power and failed utterly to foresee either the end of full employment or the advent of inflation. Nevertheless, if we peer hard enough into the autumn mist ahead, it is possible to make out the shapes of some of the potential crises ahead.

The next few weeks alone present a series of minor, but still awkward, challenges. The referendum on a Scottish parliament on 11 September could still produce a Yes-No verdict, as voters decide their patriotic duty is fulfilled by the first Yes, without taking a risk on future tax increases. The Labour conference in Brighton, for all the afterglow of election victory and ruthless delegate-management, will see a widespread revolt against proposals for party reform whose main fault, in truth, is that they do not go far enough.

But there are some bigger icebergs out there. While the Conservatives have left the shop in remarkably good order, albeit with a frothy consumer boom driven by building-society windfalls, the over-riding difficulty for Gordon Brown is how to engineer a "soft landing" when the inevitable descent begins. The consensus is that the business cycle will move into a downward phase in late 1998 or 1999, just in time for the next election. The Chancellor must hope that the present high exchange rate is administering the early touch on the brakes that is required.

The second serious challenge to Mr Blair is also tied to the exchange rate, which glints like an ominous golden thread through British political history of the 20th century. In two weeks' time, European finance ministers gather for an informal meeting - that is, one of the important ones, which has not been scripted in advance by the physicians of spin - in Mondorf- les-Bains in Luxembourg. For an issue that did so much to destroy a once- great political party and to hand an historic election victory to Mr Blair, it is astonishing how little we have heard of the single European currency since 1 May.

We are now a mere 15 months from the launch of the euro, and there are still radical uncertainties about the new government's attitude to this epoch-defining event. It is inconceivable that the British people could vote in favour of joining in a referendum in time to allow the pound to be part of the new currency at its launch, and yet that possibility has not finally been ruled out by Mr Blair or Mr Brown. More important, Britain's relationship to the euro, assuming the pound remains outside it to start with, has not been defined. The sceptical Foreign Secretary has already said that Britain could not stand outside a successful monetary union for long. But, when the single currency is launched in January 1999, will the Government announce its intention to join as soon as possible, or after a specified period, and on what conditions?

These are the sort of questions that could either revive or split the Tory party, depending on how they are handled, and, because of the precondition of a referendum, the debate is bound to be heated and divisive. That debate cannot and should not be put off for long.

For all his impressive presentational skills, Mr Blair has shown some worrying signs thus far of being a merely reactive politician whose ministers have a predilection for confronting difficult problems by setting up reviews and commissions and working parties. It is time for the Prime Minister to start leading public opinion, by shining a brighter light on Labour's vision of our future.

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