Mr Portaloo (aka Michael Portillo) is by no means our favourite columnist and our view is that The Sunday Times was sadly diminished when it recruited him. However, as Churchill once said, every dog has his day (and some days are longer than others), so even Portaloo, by the law of averages, must occasionally contribute something worth reading.
So it is today when, under the heading: "The escape door's open, but Blair stays on as EU hostage", Portaloo recounts how twelve years ago, selected members of John Major’s cabinet gathered at Admiralty House to hear the results of the French referendum on the Maastricht treaty.
Within minutes of the ballot boxes being sealed, he writes, Major received a call from Paris to tell him that the vote had been carried by 51 to 49 percent. That, says Portaloo, surprised me:
In my experience of elections it had never been possible to know the outcome of such a close contest so quickly. To this day I harbour shameful doubts about how the French government could be so sure so soon. British ministers exchanged sceptical glances in private as Major went outside to tell the media of his pleasure at the result.Portaloo continues with the theme, opining that the French "yes" vote was a decisive event in Major's destruction and again a British prime minister’s fate is once more in the hands of the French electorate. If it votes yes to the European constitution in May, Tony Blair's premiership may be doomed. He would be obliged to hold a referendum and if that were lost he would be unlikely to survive.
This creates an interesting situation because, if Blair wins the general election we shall soon be plunged into preparations for the referendum, but there is no reason for the government to be any keener on the constitution than the rest of us. For instance, says Portaloo, a European foreign minister will be a nuisance to Blair since he is presently Europe’s pre-eminent figure on the world stage. He goes with this perceptive comment:
The integrationists want a constitution, president and foreign minister because those are the attributes of a nation state. The treaty does not bring about a United States of Europe, but it seeks to accustom us to the terminology and institutions of a country called Europe. It lays the ground for further integration that will doubtless be proposed if the constitution is ratified.That is indeed the theme that we have rehearsed on this Blog but whether that ratification will happen is further put in doubt by a news piece also in The Sunday Times.
"French ready to spite Chirac on EU", writes Matthew Campbell in Paris, with a strap, "Unrest adds to anti-constitution vote". More particularly, Campbell writes of the farmers who are getting ready to ditch Chirac.
He cites Pierre-Emmanuel Lavaux, a 46-year-old farmer who expresses concern about enlargement, arguing that: "The bigger the European Union gets, the weaker our agriculture will become," he says. "It will become that much harder to survive." Lavaux, and many others like him it seems, is looking forward to the chance of registering his disgust by voting "non" in a referendum. The French spring is infused with an air of anti-EU rebellion.
Nevertheless, a French "non", writes Campbell, would almost certainly save Blair the embarrassment of a British referendum on the constitution next year. That is one to watch but the French are also capable of delivering another Maastricht vote – with the (yes) result declared minutes after the polls close. Not for nothing is Chirac known as l'escroc. To him, electoral corruption is meat and drink.