This was supposed to be the big day, when the parliamentary battle over the constitution started. Blair, as is the custom, came before the House to make a statement on the outcome of the negotiations, thus giving the leader of the opposition, Michael Howard, the chance to take him apart (politically that is). We were about to see the "battle of the giants".
Watching the thing on television, on gains certain impressions which the cold, printed word of the Hansard record simply cannot convey, but having seen the body language, the smirks, and the knowing looks, the words themselves have more meaning. The gaps between the lines are better illuminated.
Wedged into those gaps, pregnant with meaning, was one word… Maastricht, short-hand for the Treaty of the European Union, the last major treaty signed by a Conservative government, the treaty which tore the Conservatives apart and which launched the modern Eurosceptic movement which led directly to the formation of UKIP and its recent electoral success.
The "above the line" battle, however, was about "myths and realities", the battleground staked out by the prime minister, and joined willingly by Mr Howard. After a presentation by Blair – who could not wait to quote Ahern saying that Europe was "not a super state; not a federal state but a group of nations", thereby putting this into the category of "he doth protest too much" – it was Howard's turn.
With evident relish, he tore into the prime minister, listing the "realities" in the constitution – like the public prosecutor – demanding in gleeful cadenced, "where's the myth in that?". It looked good, it sounded good and it seemed to be working. But then it all fell apart.
In his response, Blair – who never looked really uncomfortable under the Howard tirade – bounded back. But his dismissal of Howard’s claims was only the warm-up. His "killer lines" came mid-way through his rebuttal as he glanced over his shoulder to warn his troops what was about to happen. "But let us compare this treaty with the two documents he agreed: the single European Act…. And of course I was looking at the Maastricht treaty to see what it extended…".
One cannot say with finality that there was a "collapse of stout party" but the ghost of Maastricht did exert its baleful effect. Pointing out what had actually been given away by the treaty, Blair then pronounced with mounting glee:
If the right hon. and learned gentleman attacks this (constitutional) treaty, he should have been screaming the place down over Maastricht. Instead, he voted for Maatricht, and he is now left in the ludicrous position of having to argue, somehow, Britain ceases to be a nation state because the rules on diplomatic and consular protection go to QMV.There lies Howard's weak point, one shared by the Conservative Party as a whole. At the moment, they are sticking to their own fiction that, somehow, everything was fine and dandy until 1997, when New Labour got elected, and then everything started to unravel: Maastricht OK, constitutional treaty not. And, as this debate showed, it is a weak point that Blair will not hesitate to exploit. Furthermore, each time he does so, he wrong-foots Howard.
Until Howard comes to terms with Maastricht, and discovers a form of words that enables him to neutralise Blair’s barbs, he will always find his own attacks blunted. That would be a pity.
To read the full debate, click here.