Thursday, February 03, 2005

Danger - Riddell at large

Peter Riddell – the Times newspaper's contribution to care in the community - is at it again. Although we have had cause to agree with some of his sentiments in the past, today’s column suggesting that, "as foreign secretary, Gordon Brown could lead from the front on Europe" gives us more than a few problems – although Riddell does float some interesting ideas.

Certainly there is nothing particularly new in the suggestion that Brown should become foreign secretary after the election. Whether it is in both his and Tony Blair’s interests, as Riddell asserts, is another matter.

But Riddell would have it that, for once, "there is a coincidence of Mr Blair's desire to establish his legacy and Mr Brown's for a benign inheritance." The link is next year's referendum on the EU constitution.

This, Riddell argues, is mainly seen just in terms of Blair's future – and who would disagree? But, for Brown, he adds, taking over as prime minister after a defeat would be the worst possible start to his premiership.

We remain with Riddell when he observes that the EU referendum is often discussed as if it were just an optional extra to the main political debate and we agree with his sentiment that Labour will not highlight Europe in its election campaign.

It is very much part of our own analysis that Blair will concentrate on the strength of the economy and public services, in the hope of retaining the support of Eurosceptic newspapers and voters now, with the promise of a separate, free-standing vote on the constitution later

We even agree that "Europe" cannot be ring-fenced. Relations with the EU are as central to politics as public services, says Riddell, particularly given Blair's repeated promise that Britain should take a leading role in the EU. In what begins to sound like a love-fest, we also agree that "The key is the EU constitution," and that a "no" vote would not just mean a reversion to the status quo, especially if all, or virtually all, other EU members back the treaty.

It is indeed probable that France and Germany would attempt to create a core Europe, with Britain on the outside, turning Britain into a marginal member of the EU and fuelling demands within the Tory party for withdrawal. Blair almost certainly have to resign as prime minister and Brown would have to spend the rest of the parliament renegotiating Britain’s position in the EU.

Writes Riddell, "he could not just dismiss the constitution as Blair's agenda. Despite differences of language, Mr Brown is no Eurosceptic." Yipeee!! Someone else has noticed... "Mr Brown is no Eurosceptic."

And, with the odds against winning remaining high the only way the "yes" side can win is if all ministers are fully involved. Brown could, and should, therefore, play a leading part, says Riddell. And the best way for Blair to tie Brown into the campaign would be by making him foreign secretary.

Then we fall apart. "Mr Brown needs a 'yes' vote, in the interests not only of a smooth start to his premiership, but also of avoiding a damaging disruption both to Labour’s foreign policy goals and to Britain’s long-term strategy towards Europe".

Oh dear. How, when our membership of the EU is disrupting our foreign policy, and putting us at odds with our most valuable ally, the United States, can Riddell assert that Brown needs a "yes" vote to avoid "damaging disruption" to Labour's foreign policy goals? Does he know something about Labour's goals that we do not?

As for "Britain's long-term strategy towards Europe", could someone tell us what it is… other than craven surrender at every opportunity? And if that is the case, why does Brown need a "yes" vote?

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