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These things, I do not believe

Posted by Richard Sunday, January 16, 2005

I suppose we should have rushed into print this morning, gleefully retailing the latest "revelations" in Robert Peston's "sensational biography" of Gordon Brown – as set out in the Sunday Telegraph.

The gist of the story is that Tony Blair was so keen to get the UK into the €uro that he actually sent three cabinet ministers in 2002 to tell Gordon Brown that he would stand down as prime minister if the chancellor agreed to help.

If we are to believe what he are told, Brown "consistently refused to negotiate" and refused to put pressure on the Treasury to come up with a positive answer to their assessment of whether the so-called economic tests for joining the single currency had been passed.

This paints Brown in a staunchly Eurosceptic mould, standing up for the pound even at the risk of losing his job. The trouble is that I do not believe it.

I have no reason to dispute Robert Peston's accounts of the events, or his analysis. He is a senior journalist - The Sunday Telegraph's City Editor – and has a reputation to protect in what is a very contentious arena. Nor do I believe he could be totally wrong, or that his sources – all of them – have deliberately misled him.

But the account does not ring true. Brown is not a Eurosceptic and I simply cannot accept that he would put his job and his ambitions on the line to protect the pound. There must be something more to this, something that Peston has not been able to identify.

Nor do I believe that the timing of the defection of Europhile MP, Robert Jackson, is as innocent as he makes out. His story is just too pat. In my view this was done with a view to maximising the damage to his former party.

But what is particularly fascinating about his reasons for leaving the Tory Party are his comments on the EU, with him saying:

The Conservative Party has developed an increasingly hostile attitude to Europe, which I believe would be damaging to our national interest if pursued in government. Michael Howard has already indicated that he would act unilaterally to denounce at least two of our treaty commitments.

There is a real and dangerous momentum building in the party to take Britain out of the EU. If the Conservative Party were to form the next government it would actively work to provoke an unnecessary and wholly undesirable crisis in our relations with Europe.
Given that the Tory fishing policy - which commits to leaving the EU's CFP – was launched last week, there is a strong possibility that this was one of the factors that precipitated Jackson's decision to depart. I suspect his other concerns about tuition fees, and the comments about Howard’s leadership abilities, are simply a smokescreen.

Anyhow, as a Europhile and supporter Kenneth Clarke – the Party is well rid of him. Mind you, Ed Vaizey, his replacement who is standing for Wantage at the general election, is according to some not much better.

What has apparently infuriated the Tory high command, however, is that very timing which Jackson claims to be accidental, as it follows yesterday's announcement of its flagship review into government waste.

This – once again if we are to believe what we are told - identified £35 billion of public expenditure which could be trimmed from the government budget. This would, according to another story in the Sunday Telegraph, enable the Tories to "cull 235,000 jobs from civil service".

These claims arise in the David James Review, a report into government efficiency for the Tories conducted by the company doctor best known for his work at the Millennium Dome.

Once again, though, the trouble is that I do not believe it. Not that I swallow Labour spin that the exercise would mean a cut in public services. From what I have seen of the Review, and the similar exercise by John Redwood, both are cutting out major departments which exist only to implement EU law.

Without these, a new Tory government would very quickly be in trouble with the EU commission, and find itself referred to the ECJ on innumerable accounts. I do not believe that Howard is prepared for this, or even understands the implications of his reviews. In power, I suspect he would very quickly scale back the grandiose plans.

Altogether, therefore, I suppose I am in a pretty sceptical mood. There's a surprise for you.