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Blair is facing a constitutional crisis

By George Trefgarne
(Filed: 05/04/2004)

Rodney Leach is back. OK, he is not a household name, but he likes it that way. He is better known in the City, where his day job is consigliere to the Keswick family in their imperial splendour at Jardine Matheson. But, one day, historians will celebrate this principled man's moonlighting. For he is also the unsung hero of modern politics and the prime mover behind the only political organisation ever to defeat New Labour during its heyday - the No campaign, a coalition of businessmen, politicians, celebrities and others that kept us out of the euro. He is Tony Blair's nemesis.

Almost as soon as Gordon Brown agreed with No and declared his five economic tests failed last summer, Mr Leach fell ill. I am glad to say that, after a period of recuperation, his friends report he is now fit and ready for a second and even more dangerous battle - to keep us out of the European Constitution.

The political river is suddenly foaming and it is on the rocks of the constitution that Mr Blair's ship may founder. How so? It is an issue over which there is serious, emotive political disagreement. On the one hand, Mr Blair wants to sign up; on the other, the electorate does not. Admittedly, most people have got other things to worry about, but research suggests that, once they are aware of the issues, voters' hostility rises to 60 to 70 per cent against. Even the Queen is taking an interest and has called for papers.

Needless to say, the constitution is impenetrable to ordinary mortals. Whereas the American Constitution - crafted by brilliant prose stylists such as Jefferson and Adams - is only about 20 pages long, the European version runs to 265 pages of tedious and opaque legalese. It is a classic example of boredom being the great ally of evil. For insomniacs who want to see for themselves, a draft text is available on the internet*.

In essence, the constitution gives EU law primacy over British law in a formalised, statutory way that, hitherto, would have been unthinkable. It is not a tidying-up exercise, as Mr Blair pretends. Europe will have a president; its own foreign secretary; and a common foreign policy. The constitution incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which gives legal weight to vague aspirations, such as access for everyone to healthcare and social security.

Perhaps the most critical section is Article 14, which gives the EU the power to "ensure co-ordination" of economic and social policies, thereby entrenching Europe's failed economic model. Directives can, for the most part, be passed by a majority of EU members and we would have to comply. The constitution increases EU power at the expense of Britain's control over its own affairs.

Any sensible person can see that such a huge change - supposedly necessary because of EU enlargement - should have the consent of the people. After all, it was not in Labour's manifesto. Indeed, about seven countries are already expected to have a referendum and any one of them might block it. The constitution even quotes Thucydides on democracy in its preamble and Article 1 begins: "Reflecting the will of the citizens and states of Europe to build a common future…". But Mr Blair evidently has not read it, or at least, if he has, he did not take it in. For he says there will be no referendum. Ergo, the constitution does not reflect the will of the British people, merely his will.

Imagine for a moment the likely scenarios through which this argument will run and it is pretty clear Mr Blair is in big trouble. The constitution will be signed in June and a ratification Bill introduced in Parliament in the autumn. Already, there is much unease on the Labour benches thanks to the sage warnings of one MP, Gisela Stuart.

My understanding is that about 40 Labour backbenchers have already said they either oppose the constitution or want a referendum. But let us assume the Bill passes the Commons; it must then pass the Lords. Here, the Liberal Democrats could hold the balance of power, for they have already said they will insist on a referendum.

Like most people (including senior Lib Dems in the Commons), I do not trust Lord Goodhart, the collaborator who is the Lib Dem constitutional affairs spokesman in the Lords. But assuming he does not renege on his party's publicly stated position, he and his peers will vote for a referendum amendment.

Mr Blair will then have three choices. He can use the Parliament Act to force the Bill through without a referendum; or do a U-turn and hold a referendum after all; or call an election (perhaps as early as October) on a "Great Moderniser versus the forces of conservatism" ticket (don't laugh). But, for this, he will need the agreement of Gordon Brown, who hinted he is against the constitution on these pages last November. Could this be his opportunity to topple Mr Blair? Maybe.

But the bigger point, in any scenario, is that Mr Blair will run up against not just the Conservative Party, the Lib Dems and Rupert Murdoch's Sun, but also Mr Leach and his merry men, who are launching a campaign organisation called the New Frontiers Foundation. They are also supporting Vote 2004, which is lobbying for a referendum. It has recruited a couple of hundred well-known backers, including the novelist Jilly Cooper and even Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Many are actually in favour of the constitution, but all agree it must be approved by the people. They face the fight of their lives. But they have one huge advantage: a Prime Minister who tries to rewrite the rules of the game to suit himself - as this one does - has forfeited his right to govern.