Why Paddy will be the winner on Thursday

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The Independent Online
It may well turn out that William Whitelaw will be remembered, if at all, not for his work as a minister but for his sayings, also known as "Willieisms". One of them is: "It is always a mistake to prejudge the past." Another, deriving from one of those numerous rows between the Conservative Party and the Church of England, is: "Of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury is a very religious man." But the Willieism which in my opinion is the finest example of all is: "The Labour Party is going round the country stirring up apathy."

Some versions have "complacency" instead. But I was there when he said it - it was at a press conference in Smith Square - and I am fairly sure he said "apathy". I am equally convinced he said it before the second election of 1974, so fixing it in September or October. Other learned commentators have placed it before the election of June 1970. The European referendum campaign of June 1975 has also been mentioned. Whatever the provenance of the saying, Lord Whitelaw certainly prejudged the present. Over the European elections, Mr Tony Blair has been stirring up apathy like a burglar burying a tiara in the back garden.

We are told he has had Kosovo on his mind, as I am sure he has. Yes, indeed. But I should have expected him to link our martial exertions more closely to our position in Europe than he has so far chosen to do. Instead he has, if anything, emphasised our solitary stand on the Continent and his affecting friendship with Mr Bill Clinton in the United States.

He has let it be known through his minions at No 10 that he wishes Thursday's elections to be regarded as a test of the Government's domestic performance. Those famous focus groups - or the people who read the entrails - have presumably told him that here be dragons: best stay away from Europe for the time being.

However busy he may have been, Mr Blair does possess cabinet colleagues. Certainly they have problems of their own also. One or two ministers should still have been able to make the odd speech on Europe, despite their preoccupations. I cannot remember a single one.

In the 1980s there used to be a middleweight boxer by the name of Herol ("Bomber") Graham. He may still be going on for all I know, though he must be quite old by now. Why he was called "Bomber" always escaped me, because he rarely threw a punch. Rather he would dance daintily round the ring, his gloves dangling at the level of his hips. But if he rarely hit anyone, his opponent would manage to make contact with him even more infrequently. The result was that Mr Graham would usually win on points, having given a consummate display of tap-dancing.

Mr Blair is trying to win or not do too badly in the European elections by the same means. He expected Mr William Hague to dance round the ring as well. When he refused to fall in with the Government's plans for him, he was accused of being unsporting - certainly a cad, possibly a bounder as well. He was even accused of breaking some truce or other. I am not making this up. It is what somebody at No 10 said at one stage. Whether this truce was meant to apply to European elections in general or to those elections taking place while a war was going on was not wholly clear.

Mr Hague may be as uninspiring as ever. He always will be, though (as I keep reminding my readers) Sir Edward Heath was regarded in precisely the same way between 1965 and 1970. But Mr Hague has had a good campaign, if such it can be called. He has kept moving forward. He has forced his opponent to defend himself, not always very effectively. His opponent's supporters in the crowd - by which I mean largely the prig press - have accused him of being "negative". As their boy Mr Blair is saying nothing whatever, positive, negative or merely neutral, this accusation strikes me as rich, not to say fruity.

We can all write the required article in our sleep: "Tory Party ... unrepresentative nationalist cabal ... splits ... lack of discipline ... death wish ... oblivion." This does not seem to me accurately to reflect what is happening. The fraud at the Commission and its untidy, unresolved and largely unexplained consequences hardly amount to shining advertisements for the European idea. And Mr Hague has been helped by the drop in the value of the euro, which its supporters did not expect to happen six months ago. In the Europress there has been a good deal of whistling of the tune that, with currencies, what goes down must come up again. This is a comforting belief. But it was not true of the pound sterling after 1947, 1949, 1967 and 1976.

The Government, inasmuch as its members can be bothered to pronounce on the subject at all, has been evasive about when and in what circumstances we join up. It is even being suggested that we should have a referendum in Mr Blair's third term - or, alternatively, that he might dispense with the need for a referendum of any kind. In these circumstances Mr Hague is right to attack Mr Blair's instruction to the commercial classes to prepare for our entry into euroland by rejigging their cash registers, computers or what-have-you. Mr Blair follows the Queen in Alice in Wonderland: "Sentence first - verdict afterwards." What if we decide not to join? The rejigging would have been work down the plughole.

Mr Hague has managed equally well with the internal politics of his own party. This is not the impression you get from reading the papers or from watching television. But then, the papers have always loved party splits - there is nothing new about that - while television increasingly treats politics in the manner of the tabloid press. There are three clear days to polling day. Someone may still say something out of turn. But so far Mr Hague has managed to keep Mr Michael Heseltine and Mr Kenneth Clarke both more or less on board.

Indeed, Mr Clarke wrote to the Daily Telegraph saying he supported Mr Hague's position. One would have expected the paper, as the sole surviving friend of the Conservatives, to publish this letter immediately in a prominent position, helping Mr Hague as it did. But the paper's affection for the Conservatives is still clearly outweighed by its detestation of Mr Clarke and its determination not to do anything that might assist him in his party. So it sat on the letter for three days before publishing it without any story trailing it on the front page.

There are many Labour supporters who find the Conservative position on Europe more sympathetic than that of their own party. Out of loyalty, they are unlikely to move to Mr Hague in any great number - though owing to the iniquitous list system, the Conservatives are still likely to do reasonably well and save Mr Hague's skin for the time being.

But the principal beneficiary will probably be Mr Paddy Ashdown, at the unnecessarily prolonged end of his unexpectedly successful political life. Those of us who attended by-elections in the 1970s remember former voters of both main parties who were going to vote Liberal because they approved of Enoch Powell. By a similar process of reasoning, a lot of electors are going to vote Liberal Democrat on Thursday because they disapprove of Mr Blair, his policy towards Europe or both.