George Trefgarne writes a thoughtful opinion piece in today’s Daily Telegraph, suggesting that: "Unless the Tories find themselves, Blair could win the EU referendum".
To start his piece, he challenges what he calls the "received view", that the next election will be a mere side show to the big political production of the next 18 months: a referendum on the European Constitution – a view expressed by Peter Riddell of The Times and a view with which this Blog very much agreed.
Trefgarne sketches out the Riddell scenario and admits he agreed with it until recently but now he is slowly coming to the view that the condition of Conservative Britain - that ancient combination of individuals, business, the media and the Conservative Party itself - is now so dire that the referendum could be lost. The poor performance of the Tory party for more than a decade, he writes, is creating a poison that pollutes the whole enterprise.
When it comes to the European Constitution campaign, therefore, Trefgarne sees a narrative goes something like this.
February 2005: Spain votes yes to ratifying the constitution (the polls are currently 57 per cent to eight per cent in favour), to be followed by Holland, Portugal and France.There are those, he admits, who will scoff at this scenario but he is also struck that even though those on what might roughly be called small "c" conservative wing of British politics are seemingly incapable of effective political action, their complacency about winning the referendum is rising.
May: Labour wins another big election victory. Tony Blair, with Gordon Brown at his side, announces a historic mission to ratify the constitution.
June: on cue, the Conservative Party erupts into a vicious and prolonged leadership contest. Labour stands back and watches another implosion in the largest political organisation at the heart of the No campaign, which is attempting to launch itself.
July: Luxembourg votes Yes and Britain takes over the presidency of the EU. Brown, hitherto sceptical about European economic performance, announces that "real progress" is being made and that reform in Germany and France is working.
By November, things look pretty serious for the No campaign as it becomes infected with the splits within the Tory party. This referendum is about Europe in or out, says Blair (lying through his teeth). Quite right, replies the Euro-sceptic Right, let's pull out altogether. At this point more than half the FTSE 100 chief executives, the CBI and Blair's new friends at the Institute of
Directors announce that it would be against Britain's economic interest to withdraw from the EU.
As the polls start to switch, other arguments are deployed by the pro-constitution lobby, of which the most potent is that the real choice is between ratifying the constitution, with all its disadvantages, or being reduced to a colonial outpost of George W Bush's America. Scare stories are spread that withdrawing would also mean the end to cheap flights to France and Spain.
Then, in March 2006, a referendum results in a Yes vote, by 52 per cent to 48 per cent - and Teflon Tony will have done it again.
They fail to recognise, Trefgarne writes, the potential impact of 24 of the other 25 EU members saying yes; they are dismissive of previous referendum upsets, such as the surprising loss by the anti-monarchists in Australia five years ago; and they forget how critical Brown's role was in keeping us out of the euro. This time round he may not be so reliable. Above all, if the Conservatives are smashed in a third general election, it could be the end of British politics as we know it.
The man may be right. But I suspect public sentiment is not going to be so easily swayed by something which is now clearly seen by "the man-in-the-street" as something belonging to the political élites. The very fact that Blair will be so keen to win the referendum will, in itself, be good enough reason to vote against it – as indeed the North East voters rose up against Prescott and his regional assembly.
But what Trafgarne does put his finger on is the dangerous closeness between the Tory Party and the "Vote No" campaign – which the "Yes" campaign will seek to accentuate. If one goes down, as seems likely, the other might follow.
However, as this Blog and others like it are showing, neither the Tories nor "Vote No" will have the monopoly when it comes to campaigning against the referendum. That campaign will be bigger than either of these players. As they fall apart, they may simply become another sideshow while others take us on to victory.