Politics - John Kampfner predicts a delayed general election

Tony Blair, insiders say, is considering delaying the election until autumn 2005 or even spring 2006

Over the past few days the British have been told that they are about to be bombed, about to be swamped and about to lose the country they love. Rarely has a political landscape appeared so grim, so untrue (perhaps with the exception of threat Number One) and rarely has it been so debilitating to good government. All the concerns have something to do with foreigners.

The arrest of eight men on 30 March and the seizure of more than half a tonne of ammonium nitrate fertiliser have revived fears that London is next in line for a terrorist spectacular. That the suspects are believed to be of Pakistani descent has reinforced a suspicion among many towards Muslims and a feeling among Muslims themselves that they are being victimised. Even though David Blunkett ticked off his Metropolitan Police commissioner for suggesting that an attack is "inevitable", at the heart of government there is a widespread view that it is only a matter of time.

On the same day as the arrests, Blunkett was having to defend his department and one of his ministers from the Conservatives and tabloids operating voraciously in tandem. The "scam" the Tories have uncovered, with a little help from disaffected civil servants and diplomats, is just the kind of problem that frightens Tony Blair. The government stands accused of incompetence in the area in which it has long felt most vulnerable - immigration and asylum. If the Home Office has allowed, wittingly or otherwise, bogus work-permit applications from Bulgaria and Romania and elsewhere to be approved, that would be a serious blunder.

But what does the row say about the political context? Beverley Hughes, the Home Office minister whose job is on the line, put it best when she accused the opposition "and their newspapers" of "demonising all immigrants as scroungers, criminals or worse".

On the same day as the furore, ministers were having to deal with the charge of treachery. Two events have transformed the politics of Europe - the Madrid bombing of 11 March and the Brussels summit of 25 and 26 March. As soon as Spain's Socialist prime minister-elect, Jose Luis RodrIguez Zapatero, announced he would return his country to the Franco-German embrace, Blair's position was undermined. He and Jack Straw in particular were quietly pleased that December's attempts to finalise a new EU constitution had broken up in acrimony. Now, thanks to the Spanish change of heart and some smart footwork by the Irish presidency, it looks as if the document will be approved by June.

Blair and his strategists are stumped. Do they attempt to fast track ratification through parliament? They can try, but with the Lords ready to insert an amendment requiring a referendum, they would face a bitter struggle with an upper house that has already defied the Commons on several issues. Or they could put it off until after the general election. That would give the Tories ready ammunition during the campaign.

Blair, I am told, is contemplating a third option: pushing through a bill on the EU constitution while delaying the election until autumn 2005 or even spring 2006. Those options are also fraught with risk. An election in September or October 2005 would be in the middle of the UK presidency and in the middle of negotiations for the EU budget. The fabled British rebate won by Margaret Thatcher would be back on the table, forcing Blair to resort to yet more talk of "red lines" and confrontation. Precedent shows that prime ministers who stretch their governments the full five years get punished, James Callaghan and John Major being the most recent examples.

During his despatch box confrontation with Michael Howard on 29 March, the Prime Minister provided a rare display of Euro-passion - not for the currency (that dream is long gone) but for the union itself. Experience suggests, however, that he will go back into his shell, wary of taking on the red tops and leaving the field open to the sceptics to adorn their narrative with yet more horrors. And even if he did take them on, which argument would Blair deploy? Does he use the same rhetoric as other European leaders, who portray the constitution as a momentous change for the continent (which it is not)? Or does he revert to calling it a "tidying-up exercise", as Peter Hain was wont to do? And though he has history on his side when insisting that - whether it be Maastricht or any other treaty - Britain ratifies agreements through parliament rather than plebiscite, how does he reconcile that with the many referendums he has already called, such as for a mayor in Hartlepool?

The Conservative position is a heavy dose of opportunism laced with menace. It puts paid to expectations of a more enlightened approach to opposition. But it is rattling the government. We are back on old territory - defending this sceptred isle against malevolent foreigners.


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