Stop the spin, there's a serious issue at stake here

Monetary union
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The Independent Online
Well, here is an interesting thing. One important part of the Government, the Treasury, briefs journalists one way about the single currency. These stories are consistent and encourage the idea of an early decision to move towards entry. Then they are denied as rubbish by another pretty important part of government, the Prime Minister's Office.

Logically, I would have thought, only one of two things can be happening. Either, as we believe, the briefings are honest, and therefore there is a disagreement. Or one set of briefings is dishonest, and the whole ``yes we are, no we aren't'' performance is a deliberate piece of news management - an attempt, as the shadow Chancellor, Peter Lilley, suggested, to confuse and demoralise critics, and soften up opinion before the decision on Emu is announced.

So which is it? This is not a minor matter. It is the single most important and difficult decision currently before the Prime Minister and indeed the country generally.

Yesterday morning the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced on the BBC Today programme that our report about him disagreeing with Tony Blair was ``fiction''. Up to a point, he has to say that: had he announced proudly that, yes, he and the PM disagreed about the timing of any attempt to replace sterling with the euro, then he'd have had to resign as Chancellor too. But let us, for a while, take him at his word. The question then is, who composed the original fiction - the briefings which are wrong? Was it the journalists? I know them all, those on The Independent and other newspapers, and I don't believe it. Was it the departmental briefers, then, who were responsible for the misinformation? And if so, why?

Here we have a small difficulty. Some readers will have seen the recent two-part documentary about Labour's Treasury team, before and after entering office. It was well-made, hugely entertaining, fly-on-the-wall stuff. I was gobsmacked by some of the material that Gordon Brown's team was prepared to see broadcast - in particular, the open and cheery admission that journalists were misinformed, indeed lied to, about important policy announcements. But it fitted with a mood of triumphal news management that was already present before the election and has become rampant since May. The Labour team is highly professional and has been hugely successful. But what we now have is a swaggering celebration of spin - a contempt for journalism. And I wonder about the sagacity of that.

Fair enough, though, that's the world we live in. It works, at least for the time being, for the Government. But journalism has a problem. The easy answer is to stop listening to briefings. If a ministerial aide brags about conning the press, why should anyone ring him up ever again? Doesn't the press have some kind of duty to the readers to stand back and say - thanks, but no thanks? That, though, is a counsel of perfection for another and easier world. In this world, a story is a story is a story.

So where are we left on the single currency? My strong impression and belief is that Gordon Brown is keener on an earlier decision than Tony Blair. The latter is a brilliant tactical politician. And if he is truly determined not to go into a European referendum on the issue without the backing of Rupert Murdoch - as ministers say - then a cursory reading of the Murdoch press suggests that Blair still has a lot of persuading to do.

The alternative version would have Blair and Brown taking their decision on the timing and mode of entry privately together. That decision would have been taken long ago, perhaps before the election. As with other key strategic choices, it would then have been accompanied by a carefully pre-planned media campaign.

If you believe that, then the briefings about the imminence of a decision are merely a long-prepared move in that campaign, and the denials of them are cynical. The media are being strung along, just as the spin-doctors boasted happened over other decisions, such as quasi-independence for the Bank of England. Clearly, the implications would be big: in effect, Britain has decided to abandon the pound and the administration is moving in a united fashion to achieve that end.

Certainly, the self-promotion of the high officials of spin, and the utter demoralisation of any political opposition, encourages one to reach, every time, for the more brilliantly conspiratorial explanation. But this time, to believe that you not only have to think Number 10 a nest of liars, but you also have to think that Blair would have tied himself to a plan, without knowing how people would react or what the surrounding political atmosphere would be.

So, yes, on balance, I think there is a division of opinion on this matter between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. On the substance, it is not as serious as the Major-Clarke split, or the Thatcher-Howe split, because the two Labour men are both, in the end, on the same side - in favour of us joining at some time - whereas in the Tory years the division was between instinctive opponents of Emu and die-hard joiners.

But every difference between a prime minister and chancellor that concerns the currency and power matters. If Brown's people keep pushing, Blair cannot but intervene and slap them down.

Time is short, and this is a trickier thing for Labour than some ministers seem to think. If the Government has a really coherent thought-through line on Europe, it has made a damned good job of hiding it. The general line seems to be that the decision on the euro is purely economic, has few political implications, and takes us no further into deeper integration. The trouble is (and I speak as a pro-European) that this is clearly nonsense. Monetary union involves more EU fiscal power and thus more political union.

So it is important to say so, and to propose a political model for Europe that can win assent. This can be done. But it hasn't been. It is perhaps the biggest single intellectual omission from the Blair administration so far. And the Government won't get through a referendum campaign with the line as it has been spun thus far - no matter how clever and intricate the spinning has been.