Monday, July 26, 2004

Hartlepool will be pivotal

I do not as a rule take much notice of Rachel Sylvester’s column in The Daily Telegraph. Known as a New Labour "luvvy", she was appointed by Charles Moore in the expectation that she could provide an insight into the doings of the Blair camp. In fact, she has proved more of a kite-flyer for Blair, either testing out the latest "spin" or floating ideas to see the reaction from the natural right-wing Telegraph readers.

In her latest missive from No. 10, therefore, headed "Mandelson's mission is to put the PM at the heart of Europe", one must wonder whether indeed she is kite-flying, or is on to something more substantial.

Her thesis is that the Mandelson’s appointment is part of a "hidden message". Blair intends to make "Europe" the major theme of his presidency for the next five years. So, while his ministers may be unveiling their five-year plans for health, education, crime and transport, Blair's "unpublished plan" is to mount an all-out campaign to persuade the British public to love their continental neighbours.

It is for that reason he is sending his most trusted ally to Brussels, to prepare the ground for a third term that will, in his view, be dominated by a battle over Europe, starting with Britain's presidency of the EU next summer.

In this scenario, it seems Blair is looking at the referendum as a springboard for a much wider fight about the nature of Britain's relationship with the rest of the world. So forget public services. After the election, he hopes to capitalise on a new bout of Conservative in-fighting, mounting a crusade to persuade the British people to love Europe and thus cementing his place in the history books.

If this is indeed Blair’s strategy, then many in the Eurosceptic movement will welcome a "full frontal" on "Europe", but before Blair commits himself – if he has not done so already, he had better read Rees-Mogg’s column in The Times.

This one, headed "Third time unlucky with Peter Mandelson" has me worried – as I always worry if I agree with him, so consistent is his reputation for getting things wrong.

But Rees Mogg does do us a service in reminding us of the state of play in Hartlepool, where the by-election will prove to be of more than marginal interest. He points to the UKIP result in the Euro-elections, where Labour did come first, but with only 32.5 percent of the vote, compared with the 59.2 percent of the vote in the 2001 general.

But UKIP came second, with 19.8 per cent; Hartlepool was its best result for in any of the three regions of the North of England, leaving the Conservatives trailing in third place with 17.0 percent of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats in a poor fourth place, with 13.4 percent.

Most of UKIP’s support came not from the Tories but from previous Labour voters and Rees-Mogg believes that this must be attributed partly to Mandelson’s role as the leading Labour advocate of European integration. If Kilroy-Silk stands in the by-election, he could draw further support away from Labour, and possibly win. That would be a disaster for Labour, which could open the gate of the next general election to UKIP and to the Conservatives.

Whether it is possible to reconcile the disparate strands of these two articles is a moot point. From within the Sylvester "bubble", one gets the sense that Blair feels that all he needs to do to win the "Europe" argument – not least the referendum - is to apply himself to it, with the support of his mate Mandy on the inside. From the Rees-Mogg "bubble", UKIP – and in particular Kilroy Silk – represents a powerful force which could grind the Blair dream into the dust.

Whoever is right, it suggests that this Blog’s prediction that the by-election in Hartlepool will be pivotal is close to the mark. But that depends on whether UKIP can get its act together. And, in the longer term, what will also be crucial is whether the Tories can confront the "Europe" issue head on, or whether they will continue to duck it and leave the ground to UKIP.

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