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25 October 2007

No pain, no gain

As Europe ensnares the PM just as it did his predecessors, Adam Boulton watches Gordon Brown talking

By Adam Boulton

If not yet for peace, this Middle East envoy business already has its uses. A week or so ago, Tony Blair met Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss economic reconstruction for the Palestinians, et voilà!, a few days later the French president says that Blair would be an ideal man to be the first EU president. Now, Maggie and Gordon eat your hearts out, the Cameron and Blair offices are swapping dates for Mr Future and Mr Once to hold their own Levantine discussions. In fact, Euro-President Blair doesn’t look like a runner, as it would take more euros than the EU could decently spare to entice him back to an interminable round of the closed-door European Council meetings he found so frustrating as PM.

Unlike Blair, who liked to arrive late and leave early, Gordon Brown was on a charm offensive in Lisbon this past week as he and fellow leaders agreed the treaty to amend EU institutions. Brown even arrived in time to attend the pre-Council gathering of European socialist leaders. The touting of Blair was a wake-up call for the new premier.

After ten years of an avowedly pro-European government in Britain, the EU is less popular with the British public than it was, and a source of pain, more than pleasure, for our political leaders. Brown, David Cameron and whoever ends up running the Liberal Democrat shop have not avoided this fate.

So why did Brown clear the diary so that between New Year and next Easter “parliament will have the opportunity to debate this amending treaty in detail and decide whether to ratify it”? Labour’s calculation is that extended debate will hurt the Tories more than it hurts the government.

Brown’s answer to the referendum question was to ignore it: in his statement on 22 October the “R word” did not pass his lips. Which won’t hold in the lengthy Lords and Commons discussions when the Conservative calls for a referendum are put to the vote. Labour will continue to argue that the revising treaty is completely dif ferent from the constitutional treaty on which Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems all made manifesto pledges to hold a referendum. Detailed debate is likely to highlight similarities rather than differences between the two treaties. Brown reckons that he will avoid defeat because the passivity of the Lib Dems will cancel out the handful of pro-referendum rebels such as Gisela Stuart and Frank Field.

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Scary sentences

But if it all goes wrong, there is already a convenient fall guy: David Miliband. Miliband’s support for Brown, first articulated in the NS last year, was the key to securing the bloodless transition from Blair. Yet No 10 still regards him as the most likely potential rival. Taking the bill through parliament will be a major test for Brown’s youthful Foreign Secretary.

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So far, Miliband has been far from sure-footed in his new job. The eccentric delivery of his party conference speech last month left many baffled, as did his naive assertion that we live in a “scary world”. Miliband seemed to be reaching for Blair-style informality, complete with glottal stops and verbless sentences, but it didn’t work. His debut at the UN was no more successful. The government was forced to issue an official correction after he contradicted Britain’s long-standing position on new Security Council members in an off-the-cuff TV interview. Speculation was heightened by his simultaneously patronising and petulant appearance before the Commons European scrutiny committee, which must have made him a lifelong enemy of its Labour chairman, Michael Connarty.

Miliband does not even have an efficiently functioning Foreign Office team to fall back on. Harmony there, and among Labour’s ministerial team in the Lords, has been shattered by Brown’s decision to appoint Mark Malloch Brown as Miliband’s deputy. There is much resentment that Malloch Brown owes his job, his title, his salary and his London home entirely to his prime ministerial patron.

All this should provide rich pickings for Cameron. He says he wants the Europe debate to be about “the trust issue” – about Brown bottling a promised referendum, rather than exquisite detail such as the extension of qualified majority voting through the wonderfully named passerelle clause. The Tory leader admits that he faces a difficult few months, as his party will inevitably have to break his injunction against “banging on about Europe”. Hardliners such as Norman Tebbit and John Redwood are already demanding a referendum pledge, even after the treaty has been ratified. Such an abrogation could unpick Britain’s full membership of the EU.

Cameron is resisting this, while talking tough. “If we can hold a referendum, at the next election we will promise it,” he said; but “the time for a referendum is now, while the treaty is still alive and being debated”. Cameron does not want to jeopardise the ties he is slowly rebuilding to potential allies in Europe, especially Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, with whom he is sharing a stage in Berlin on 26 October at a conference of Germany’s ruling CDU/CSU.

Meanwhile, the pressure for a referendum of some kind will grow. Ireland is having one. Denmark may follow. The Scottish government, the Eurosceptic millionaire Paul Sykes and villages such as Broughton Astley are all threatening to hold votes of their own. The Sun has put a referendum at the heart of its editorial policy, providing a possible pretext for decoupling its loyal support for the government.

Nor will the political pain end with the debate in parliament. The treaty is due to come into force in January 2009, ensuring that a new Council president and foreign minister, or rather “high representative”, would be chosen next year. European Parliament elections take place in June 2009, an appetiser or side dish to a UK general election. If Brown delayed until 2010, he would have to appoint Peter Mandelson’s replacement as EU Commissioner by September 2009.

Unlike the arcane treaty reforms, issues such as these are more easily grasped by the public. Brown is merely the latest prime minister to try to be sceptical at home but constructive in Brussels. The greater the scrutiny, the more difficult it is to pull off this Janus stance. If he gets to No 10, Cameron will find himself in a similar and even less comfortable position. Indeed, confrontation with Tory Europhobes may offer his most likely Clause Four moment.

The Liberal Democrats’ call for a referendum on the bigger question of Britain’s EU membership is merely a ruse to get them off the hook of their own treaty referendum pledge. That is one European referendum that the Euro-enthusiasts are more likely to win. Not for the first time, Lib Dem opportunism may turn out to be prescient. Sooner, in Brown’s case, or later, in Cameron’s, it may yet prove expedient to ask the voters the old question: “Britain – in or out?”

Adam Boulton is political editor of Sky News
Martin Bright is away