Brown speech does not raise threshold on euro stakes

 

BRITAIN: A survey finds support for Labour has dipped by just one point to 41 per cent, Frank Millar, London Editor, reports

Chancellor Gordon Brown has reminded us he intends to play a determining role if and when the Blair government commits itself to membership of the euro and to a pre-election referendum.

Despite suggestions in some sections of the Euro-sceptic press, however, Mr Brown's Mansion House speech does not appear to have raised the threshold for the Treasury's famed five economic tests.

And it seems little else has changed, either, on the British political landscape.

The Blair government has had a torrid time over spin doctors and bad news burial days, the Stephen Byers resignation and a royal rumpus over the Queen Mother's funeral arrangements.

These controversies have been played out against a backdrop of mounting concerns over pensions, fears of a property boom running to bust, continuing ministerial failure to deliver quality public services, and growing evidence that the prime minister is acquiring a "trust" problem.

Yet one year after his second election landslide, Mr Blair has the reassurance that - increasingly unpopular and distrusted as his government might be - the voters have no greater interest in the Tory alternative.

There will be increasing debate about the reliability of traditional pollsters conducting their surveys by telephone and those testing opinions and intentions on-line.

However, yesterday's NOP survey suggests support for Labour has dipped by just one point (to 41 per cent), while the Conservatives (on 31 per cent) have fallen behind their 33 per cent share of the vote 12 months ago.

Moreover, if Conservative leader Mr Iain Duncan is proving a marginally more appealing figure than his predecessor Mr William Hague, it is only marginally.

Just 19 per cent say he would make the best prime minister, compared to 16 per cent for the Liberal Democrat leader Mr Charles Kennedy, and 38 per cent for Mr Blair.

Mr Brown, who we are told sees everything in terms of his eventual succession prospects, will doubtless note that Mr Blair's "best prime minister" rating is down 14 points since the election.

Just as some commentators inevitably detected an assertion of personal ownership of the euro tests when the chancellor declared: "If the tests are met, I believe we should go in. If the tests are not met, we should not."

However, despite some significance attached to the chancellor's references to the importance of the exchange rate and the likely impact on business cycles and the housing market, there was little evidence to sustain suggestions of a general stiffening of the tests for British membership of the euro.

That said, it is equally possible - given the "peek-a-boo" manner in which New Labour conducts this debate - to divine evidence supportive of a growing suspicion that the government might yet duck the issue when decision time finally arrives, declaring progress made but still more needed.

"There is no hidden agenda," declared the chancellor: "Only a resolution to make the right long-term decisions for Britain and the national economic interest.

"There will be no fudging or short-circuiting as we measure the effect of the euro on employment, growth, investment and stability."

Certainly the Conservative shadow chancellor, Mr Michael Howard, was not to be counted among those who thought they had heard anything new.

He again said the chancellor's permanent secretary, Mr Gus O'Donnell, had told the truth when conceding that the economics would never be clear and unambiguous.

Ultimately, Mr Howard asserted yesterday, the tests could be interpreted any way and this would be a matter for political decision.

As things stand now it may be a decision to be taken against resurgent public affection and support for royalty, heritage and tradition, and mounting evidence that the voters - still seemingly opposed to euro membership by roughly two to one - are less and less inclined to take the prime minister at his word.

The time for decision might also come, as one close Labour watcher reminded yesterday, at around the same time as President Bush might be calling on Mr Blair's support for an offensive against President Saddam Hussein. For all his formidable powers, he wondered, could Mr Blair really back a US war against Iraq while simultaneously seeking to persuade a doubtful British public to scrap the pound and enter the euro?