Ask them no questions, they'll tell you no lies

William Rees-Mogg

The Times Monday 9 June 2003

Yesterday morning David Frost had a couple of scoops and a miss. His two scoops were his interviews with Iain Duncan Smith and Gordon Brown, which may prefigure the central debates of coming British politics; his miss was the failure to ask the key question which would have scalped the carefully composed coiffeur of Gordon Brown's new position. Nevertheless, it made for an intriguing Breakfast With Frost.

David Frost brings out the best in Iain Duncan Smith. On most Wednesdays in the Commons Duncan Smith loses to Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions, just as William Hague used to win. He is getting better at the chop logic of the Today programme and Newsnight, but he is not a natural debater. With David Frost, Duncan Smith comes into his own as the quiet spokesman for the silent majority. He sounds what he is -- a decent and reasonable man, the image that Clement Attlee enjoyed in the 1940s. He also sounds, as he does in private, like someone who knows his own mind.

The subjects David Frost raised included Europe and the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; Iain Duncan Smith emphasised the new Conservative policy on the health service. He does not think that Tony Blair lied over the intelligence reports, but he does think Blair should clear up the apparently exaggerated use of intelligence briefings. That is what the British seem to think, too. A You Gov poll in the Mail on Sunday showed that 63 per cent of people think that Tony Blair misled about the weapons, but only 27 per cent think that he lied deliberately.

It is not surprising that the public is increasingly suspicious of Tony Blair's style of advocacy. He repeatedly uses a rhetorical device which has become extremely irritating. He distorts and oversimplifies the case that is being made against him, and then knocks down the straw man he has constructed. Iain Duncan Smith and the majority of the public may be right to think this is misleading but not deliberately lying. But when one hears the Prime Minister once again parody the serious concerns of those who opposed the Iraq war, or of the Eurosceptics, in order to show that arguments they have never used are wrong, one's sympathy goes out to them, not to him. There have been periods in history when Prime Ministers were expected to be more scrupulous. This is cheap jury advocacy; it would not pass the scrutiny of a judge.

On the European question, Iain Duncan Smith strongly advocated a referendum on the European constitution. In the same poll, 75 per cent of those questioned supported that; other polls have given even higher figures. Polls have also been showing that more than 60 per cent agree with Iain Duncan Smith's other views on Europe -- that Britain should not agree to further transfers of power to Brussels, but specifically should not join the euro.

The Conservatives are also gaining majority support for their concern about rising taxation, and their new policies on health and higher education appear to be popular. In general, the Conservative Party may be ceasing to be the unpopular party, as Conservative policies are increasingly becoming the popular policies. In his conversation with David Frost, Iain Duncan Smith seemed to be saying what most voters think on the subjects that were raised with him.

Gordon Brown was another matter. From the point of view of the professional politician -- or of the professional journalist for that matter -- he was the more imposing figure. It was like listening to the bishop after hearing a sermon from the local vicar. Gordon Brown is redolent with authority; he smells of it, as King Edward VII smelt of cigar smoke.

It may be a mistake for a politician to appear on Breakfast With Frost when he thinks that things are going particularly well for him. We are used to the discomfortable Brown, always ready to point out the dangers the nation has to face, always remembering that he is not Prime Minister, but ought to be. Yesterday he was beaming with benign self-satisfaction.

I am no Kremlinologist of the Labour hierarchy, but it struck me that he may imagine he had done a deal with Tony Blair, that a second Granita deal has been scribbled on the back of another menu. And Gordon Brown thinks he has got the better of it.

Other people have supposed that they have done a deal with Tony Blair and, like Paddy Ashdown, they have been sadly disappointed. The deal Paddy Ashdown thought he had done was to persuade Tony Blair of the advantage of electoral reform, in return for which the Lib Dems supported Labour with tactical votes in the constituencies and useful support in Parliament. Paddy Ashdown stumped up the quo, but Tony Blair never came forward with the quid.

Gordon Brown on Breakfast With Frost emerged as an euphoric europhile, rather than the gloomy quasi-eurosceptic that has been his more familiar persona. I suspect that his glowing Europeanism may be his side of the bargain, and that the keys to No 10 are supposed to be Blair's side of their new deal. If one were unkind, one might say that Gordon Brown is tempted to sell the independence of his country in order to become Prime Minister. I would only warn him that supping with Blair often leaves people without any supper.

That was the point at which David Frost failed to ask the key question. Does Gordon Brown support the refusal to give British voters a referendum on the European constitution? If he had been asked, he would certainly have had to defend the Government's position; after all, he is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and has controlled the long-delayed referendum on the euro. It would have been simple to get his rejection of a referendum on to the record.

Gordon Brown was chuntering on about the glories of Europe in a familiar way. He might even have borrowed his scripts from the ridiculous Peter Hain. On the euro, he has always been insistent that Britain's economic interests must be safeguarded. Today he will be saying that they have not yet been satisfied.

On the euro, Brown is fully committed to the view that Britain's economic interests come first. He may have been blind to the constitutional questions which arise from joining a single currency outside our control, but he has fought for his five tests. He seems to take a quite different, and much more lax view, of the proposed constitution. There, he did not sound like a serious analyst with British interests, but like a naive Euro-federalist, willing to go with the tide of European centralisation.

Brown does not demand five tests, or any tests, on the constitution. He is not trying to protect British liberties from the ongoing process of integration. He criticises some European powers for their failure to adopt economic reforms, but he is unworried that Britain may be trapped by the European regulations that he attacks. On the euro, he has been cautious, at least so far. On the constitution, he is reckless, but will not allow British people their right to decide.

There is a common view that Conservatives cannot win the next election, however badly Labour does. That may prove true, since they would have to win 164 seats, which would require a swing of 10 per cent or more. However, it is possible, if still unlikely, that Labour could still lose its overall majority. That would need a loss of 83 seats, or a swing of about 7 per cent. Labour could lose if its share of the votes fell in the region of 33 per cent, against the latest You Gov poll of 37 per cent.

Mistrust could do to Labour what sleaze did to the Tories. I was one of those who supported the occupation of Iraq; I even made a speech in the House of Lords supporting Tony Blair's policies. Nevertheless, I cannot believe that the dossiers, published or not published, represented a frank and fair view of the balance of the best intelligence information. Nor do I believe that the intelligence community is satisfied.

The referendum on the constitution is an issue of trust. This is a proposed constitution for a United States of Europe. The Government has refused a referendum. Two grounds are offered to justify the refusal. The constitution is said not to be important; that is obviously a silly lie. The Government claims not to approve of referendums; it has held 34 of them, many on trivial subjects. The issues of peace and war or of national self-government require scrupulous truth and public consent. If the voters come to the conclusion that this is a Government of liars, they will be right to turn them out.