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Everyone is wrong – except Will Hutton

Posted by Richard Sunday, February 13, 2005

Two broadsheets today, The Sunday Telegraph and The Sunday Times feature Alan Milburn's comment that Blair could quit over if he loses the EU referendum poll.

Actually, it is not exactly the case that Milburn volunteered this information. Reading the Telegraph story, it seems more the case that he "refused to rule out the possibility" of Blair quitting – which puts something of a different slant on it. The Times puts it even clearer. To the question of whether Blair would resign if the poll went against him, he simply replied: "Let's see what happens in the referendum."

The comment came during a BBC radio interview and the Telegraph has it that Gordon Brown and other potential Labour leadership candidates would be studying it closely. So we're back to the "soap opera".

Will Hutton, in The Observer, however, confronts head-on this "received wisdom" that Blair "has become a political corpse", expressing the view that the result of the referendum is far from a foregone conclusion "What if he won?", he asks.

With unrestrained chutzpah (we seem to be using that word rather a lot lately), he mocks the "commentariat! – of which he is a founder member – for always getting it wrong, and then gives nine reasons why the "calamity scenario" of a "no" vote in the referendum could be wrong.

His thesis is basically that New Labour is a "coalition of the centre and moderate liberal left" and represents the new majority in British politics. They are the "One Nation" majority”.

Against that is aligned the Conservatives "losers", UKIP, the BNP, the left of the Labour movement, right-wing businessmen and zealots in the conservative press in opposing the treaty. Their previous predictions of Armageddon which then do not happen have established the Conservative party as lunatic, so they are going to be more cautious about the constitution.

Add to that, "the politics of the EU are changing", with the EU commission unashamedly pro-growth, pro-employment and wanting to shed its reputation for regulations. And even the US "now strongly supports integration and even the EU constitution", so it is going to become very much harder to portray the EU as the enemy of liberty.

Against that, "facts will out" as television and radio, under much more pressure to portray reality accurately, will be forced to hold the wilder claims of the Eurosceptics. The "One Nation" majority will begin to wonder if they are not the victims of scaremongering and will start to listen to "influential intellectuals" such as Mark Leonard, who make the case for the European Union.

Then, the "pro-Europeans", who have not yet constituted an effective campaigning coalition, will come storming through after the general election, spearheaded by CBI director-general Digby Jones, who will make a "powerful pro-European case from business", while TUC leader Brendan Barber will speak equally strongly for organised labour. Meanwhile, the Labour and Liberal Democratic leadership, together with prominent Conservatives (Chris Patten, Kenneth Clarke and some younger bloods) will weigh in.

It will feel like the majority of level-headed One Nation Britain will be for the constitution, says Hutton.

To give the poll a fair wind, the referendum will be held as late as possible next year, after all the other 24 states have voted yes, diminishing the force of the claim that we can vote no and renegotiate the treaty. This will position the “no” vote as a vote to have a more semi-detached relationship or even leave the EU. And, to cap it all, one of the opinion polls gives the antis only a two percent lead.

Declares Hutton, "this referendum can be won." He concludes: "If so, it will be one of the sweetest moments in British politics for years, cementing a progressive consensus and Britain's membership of the European Union alike. Tony Blair, famously a lucky politician, may be about to get lucky again.”

We are encouraged by this prognosis, from a man who is so often wrong. What is particularly amusing is that Hutton, having so virulently portrayed the US as the "enemy of liberty", now calls in aid that self-same US, the apparent support of which makes it "very much harder to portray the EU as the enemy of liberty."

However, we would agree with Hutton on one thing, that: "the result of the referendum is far from a foregone conclusion." There is much work to do.