Behind the scenes: a real story

So now we know more about the purpose behind the prudence. Since Tony Blair became leader, his main target audience have been the millions who never go near a political meeting, let alone a party conference. "Trust us" has been his subliminal message over the past five-and-a-half years, even when the election had been safely won.

Now the political context has changed, and senior ministers have shown that they can address the new, more complex mood that they have done much to bring about. For now, at least, the trust has been secured. The opinion poll ratings break all records for a mid-term government. Admiring business leaders descend on the conference in their hundreds, as they have done for several years. The newspapers, while far from being in the pockets of the over-mythologised spin-doctors, sharpen their knives for William Hague and his demoralised troops much more than they do for new Labour.

But a new political challenge has arisen. Peter Hain identified it first in an interview with me, when he warned that the government was being "gratuitously offensive" to its core vote. His view was confirmed by depressingly low turnouts in subsequent elections. In effect, Blair and Brown started to write their conference speeches the day after the European election results. Prudence was still there, but Purpose got much more of a look-in.

Which is why the predicted rows over the Chancellor's war chest never materialised during conference week. Most of the delegates I spoke to - and, indeed, some of the "spending" ministers - seemed relaxed about the situation. They seemed to recognise that the problems arising from having a big surplus were infinitely preferable to those that have faced previous Labour chancellors.

Yet, not very far below the controlled calm of this conference, a very significant story rumbled. After a short, artificially imposed interlude, the euro has returned to become a dominant theme in British politics. The rumblings are all the more remarkable, and dangerous, because they are just about out in the open. In Bournemouth, they were detectable on the basis of more than "off-the-record briefings", in dubious bars, from those around Messrs Blair, Brown and Cook.

Let us first take the case of Robin Cook. At a fringe meeting, he admitted that he had "been pushing the boat out" on the euro and gently criticised the media for the way they reported his attempts to do so. Now I know the media spends much of its time complaining about the boringly "on-message" politicians, only to go into a wild, destructive frenzy when someone dares to make an intelligent comment that goes beyond the normal party line. Even so, the media has underplayed this particular story.

For a start, a public admission from a foreign secretary that he has been "pushing the boat out" is, itself, unusual. Normally when a bit of boat-pushing goes on, the instigator plays the innocent. "I'm doing nothing of the sort, merely restating government policy," is a more typical refrain from a boat-pushing minister.

But Cook has publicly acknowledged that he wants to explain the benefits of the euro. In one interview, he suggested that there would be a political price, as well as an economic one, if Britain remained outside the euro for a lengthy period of time. This may be a statement of the bleedin' obvious, but it goes beyond the restatement of the five economic conditions that are meant to determine entry.

The Cook camp remains unrepentant. There will be more to come, they say. How ridiculous and politically dangerous, they suggest, that ministers should refrain from highlighting the benefits of the euro and the potential dangers of staying out.

Increasingly, Blair appears to share this position. The Sun identified Blair's conference speech as the moment when he finally went into battle for the euro. I was more intrigued by his interview with the BBC at the start of the conference, in which he said that he "anticipated a referendum early in the second term" - providing, of course, the economic conditions were right.

Brown has never publicly spoken of an early referendum, acknowledging merely that the government would review the situation soon after the election. Some of Brown's aides have expressed concern that the review of the economic conditions risks becoming too closely linked with an early referendum. They want the build-up to the review to be more neutral. After all, they imply, a review may conclude that the time for entry was not right - in which case there would not be an early referendum.

During the conference, some of those close to the Chancellor were asking: "What's Cook up to?" Some of Cook's associates, on the other hand, were asking why Brown seemed so wary of ministers praising the euro. Are these tensions over tactics? Or has Brown cooled over the euro, while Blair and Cook have grown warmer? I suspect the former, but what is revealing is that the three heavyweights involved are not entirely sure what each really thinks; incredibly, they have not gotten together to discuss the issue.

Once back from their week by the seaside, they need to have a good old- fashioned talk and, given the importance of this issue, they should involve the rest of the cabinet at some point as well.

Blair articulated the progressives' case at the conference in a way that the vast majority of voters will relate to. We are all progressives now - except the shadow cabinet, fox-hunters and the hereditary peers. Yet disputes over the euro can tear apart the most formidable of election-winning machines. If anyone believes this is over the top, take a look at the party that ruled for 18 years as it gathers in Blackpool.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The eminence rouge