PM's Statement on European Constitution
21 Jun 2004
For a major statement by the Prime Minister, affecting the country's constitution, the House was surprisingly empty. I would say that well under half Labour's MP's weren't present.
"Why is he doing this?" I asked myself, when the PM committed himself to a referendum he must know he has a slim chance of winning. What is the game plan?
He has good political antennae, and an ability to read the mood of the country. If he suspects that the hostility to the new Constitution is confined to Conservative MP's - a group he has little time for - he makes a serious mistake. The Conservative Party view on Europe is fairly close to the centre of gravity of that of the country - if anything, our commitment to stay in makes us more Europhile than many we represent. Our hostility is very widely shared.
Perhaps he believes he can win the argument and turn public opinion round; I doubt it. I think public opinion may well move in the opposite direction as the obfuscations in the Treaty become apparent.
It reminds me of the Clive Ponting trial, when the jury decided - regardless of the evidence - that they weren't going to find him guilty for breaking the Official Secrets Act. I think the public have decided, regardless of the argument, that they are going to vote "No" on the referendum. I suspect the voters in other countries where the Prime Minister has signed may also vote No in a Referendum.
The Prime Minister resisted calls for a Referendum on the Constitution until a few weeks ago; faced with humilation in the Euro elections, he trumped our ace by agreeing to our call for a Referendum. But by solving an immediate problem, he created a new one. He could have got his Constitution through Parliament; but he won't get it past a Referendum. Another example of short-termism and expediency perhaps.
What next? I think there is now an appetite for a different approach, one shared by the newer entrants to the EU and one which this country can and should articulate. But not under Tony Blair. The Conservative Party has an opportunity to build up alliances with other European centre-right parties for the deregulated, outward-looking "live-and-let-live" Europe that Michael Howard has been talking about.
Europe caused the last Conservative Government some terminal problems; will it do the same for Labour?
 
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