Funny business abroad

Observations on the Euro debate

The most leaked memo-writer in the history of British politics received another breakfast-time shock on Monday morning, thanks to a Daily Telegraph splash on "Blair's euro battle plan". The research for GGC/NOP, the research firm led by Philip Gould and Stanley Greenberg, was available to all for just 50 pence - rather less than the firm's usual fee.

Although the pollsters' overall message was that a euro referendum was winnable, there were several caveats - not least the warning that Labour's "core voters" are deeply sceptical. The Yes campaign will have to pay close attention to them.

"This involves targeting working-class, Labour-voting Sun readers, who are seen as particularly resistant to the blandishments of the 'Yes' campaign," the gurus wrote. "Like it or not, the 'Yes' is aligned with the educated, cosmopolitan and cultural elites and the 'No' is associated with working-class, less-educated Britain."

The No campaign seems to have drawn a similar conclusion. In anticipation of an eventual referendum, the No-sayers have decided to sway popular opinion by sending in the clowns.

A 90-second commercial - part of a £1m summer offensive - will appear in cinemas next month. It stars familiar showbiz names: Harry Enfield, Rik Mayall and Vic Reeves will all argue against Britain joining the single currency.

"The lesson of the Danish vote [which registered a convincing Nej in September 2000] is that people are looking for something a bit different in a referendum," says George Eustice, the No campaign spokesman. "Politicians are not enough to swing it on their own. The Yes camp will have a lot of establishment figures on their side - we need a people-based campaign."

The pro-euro Britain in Europe (BiE) team is a little less starry-eyed, at least for now. "We always said the No campaign were a bunch of comedians," was the immediate response of Simon Buckby, the BiE campaigns director. Comparisons with Luvvies for Labour, and in particular Cool Britannia - that shameful time when ministers toasted rock stars at No 10 while backbenchers were whipped through the lobbies to support benefit cuts for lone parents - will be avoided.

But in January this year, when the rest of the continent switched to euro notes and coins, BiE did deploy the actor and comedian Eddie Izzard to promote the single currency. Izzard summed up his views with a characteristically cool remark: "We're either doing this European thing or we should forget it." BiE noted a sharp improvement in the pro-euro poll ratings after the January switch-over, which may or may not have had something to do with the glamorous Izzard.

Comedians dabbling in politics have a pretty dismal track record. John Cleese's exertions for the Social Democrat/Liberal alliance hardly broke the mould. When Kenny Everett mocked Michael Foot in 1983, the results were tasteless and offensive. (And had it come to a fight, I think I would have backed the Plymouth Argyle man against the bearded Scouser.)

Indeed, what the comedians backing the No campaign have in common is that their best work is behind them. They recall the struggling efforts of Archie Rice, John Osborne's music-hall entertainer, grimly working his way through feeble material for an audience which no longer wants him, and that he no longer understands.

Rice sings of a Britain that has lost its way:

Those bits of red still on the map
We won't give up without a scrap.

Perhaps the No campaign could adopt this for its own ends. But when the referendum finally comes, it is unlikely that the Yes campaign will allow the No gang to hog all the showbiz glamour for themselves. So there will be more as yet undeclared celebrities lining up alongside Eddie Izzard.

It isn't just soundbites, rogue polls, dodgy data and ridiculous poster campaigns that we can look forward to. We will also be treated to the sight of second- and third-rate comedians recycling old material in an attempt to raise their profile on the back of a serious debate - a nightmare Royal Variety Performance going on for ever. There will probably be euro game shows and a few pop songs, too.

Can't wait. As that true giant of music hall, Tommy Trinder, used to say, "You lucky people!"