29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 10

Jack Straw scents the impending demise of Tony Blair

Six years into the Thatcher government, and there was no question about who the Prime Minister was, what she stood for and where she was going. There was already a substantial body of achievement. Not so Tony Blair. Halfway through his second term he remains a rudderless and curiously negligible figure. If he vanished one morning in a puff of smoke, an outcome that can by no means be ruled out, he would leave very little behind. This week's warning from Jack Straw that Britain is ready to veto the new European constitution admirably demonstrates the fleeting, insubstantial quality of so many of the Prime Minister's political enthusiasms.

The Foreign Secretary's defiant briefing contradicts everything Tony Blair has said. Back in May the Prime Minister informed lain Duncan Smith that the constitution was 'necessary' for the accession of new member states. Now Jack Straw suggests it could be dropped. Till this week the government has insisted that the constitution was a 'tidyingup exercise'. Now Jack Straw is adamant that since great issues of principle are at stake, Britain may be forced to deploy the veto.

But the Foreign Secretary's intervention does not simply make a nonsense of government policy. Far more important, it shatters the grand European strategy set out by Tony Blair in 1997 and reaffirmed on numerous occasions since. It has been Tony Blair's central contention that he will break the barriers that have bedevilled all post-Imperial politicians and establish Britain securely at the heart of Europe. It was axiomatic that the Prime Minister would work from within, and never resort to the threats and ultimatums deployed by the Major and Thatcher governments from the sidelines.

The outbreak of bombast from Jack Straw — allied with Gordon Brown's openly Eurosceptic speech at the CBI — shows that the Blair government has turned its back on emollient pro-Europeanism. Instead it has embraced the very Eurosceptic tactics of which, until recently, it has been utterly scornful. This is an astonishing about-turn. It is as if Margaret Thatcher suddenly announced that she had decided she was wrong about trade-union reform.

Three reasons lie behind this dramatic change of strategy. The first is personal to Tony Blair himself, and has been building up for a number of years. Close colleagues of the Prime Minister have noted for some time that he does not enjoy European summits. Instead of throwing himself into the spirit of things, he stands aside. He is visibly resentful of the way it is run as a German/French show, and that he is just a member of the supporting cast. He is often the last to arrive and first to leave.

Close observers say that the Prime Minister prefers to go to Washington, where he is no longer of indeterminate status, just one among a score of national leaders. Instead he is constantly assured that he enjoys a privileged relationship with the US President, is greatly feted, flown for privileged chats at Camp David, treated as an international statesman on the world stage. The Prime Minister's ego swells as he travels across the Atlantic, visibly deflates as he hops over the English Channel. The element of personal vanity, present in the psychological make-up of all politicians, cannot be ruled out as one of the determining factors underlying Tony Blair's unexpected warmth towards the United States, and corresponding coolness to continental Europe.

The second reason is more immediate: Rupert Murdoch. Two weeks ago the Australian-born newspaper tycoon publicly warned the Prime Minister that he might order the editors of the Sun and the Times to change their allegiance from New Labour to Michael Howard's revitalised Conservative party. One option open to Tony Blair was to respond to the threatening behaviour by telling Murdoch to get lost. But the single constant theme of this Blair government has been to stay close to News International. Rupert Murdoch, for reasons that remain obscure. is more concerned about the European constitution than about any other contemporary political issue. Blair knows that well. The British government's new line on Europe is the first direct policy consequence of Murdoch's remarks.

The third reason for Tony Blair's lurch to Euroscepticism may be pressure from senior Cabinet colleagues. There is knowing talk in Whitehall this week of a new alliance between Gordon Brown and Jack Straw. This combination of foreign secretary and chancellor would be menacing for any prime minister. Some Downing Street insiders detect echoes here of the way Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson teamed up against Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, or Kenneth Clarke and Douglas Hurd against John Major.

The evidence they put forward is roughly as follows: Straw joined with Gordon Brown to try to thwart David Blunkett and Tony Blair over ID cards. I am told there was paper traffic on the subject between No. 10 and the Home Office when Jack Straw was home secretary, and never a suggestion that he was against the idea: if anything, quite the reverse. Straw has been at times a little detached over the Iraq war, and by no means consistently helpful to No. 10 during the numerous parliamentary inquiries and other embarrassments that have followed. Above all, he set Downing Street teeth on edge when he supported Gordon Brown against Tony Blair over the euro.

This evidence, though compelling, is by no means incontrovertible and is in any case circumstantial. Straw is hard to read. His status as Foreign Secretary belies the fact that he is essentially a politician of the second rank. He is at his best, and most characteristic, when running errands or giving cover to others. In 1994 he acted as outrider for Tony Blair by floating the abolition of Clause Four. More recently he privately briefed the BBC that the government no longer believed that weapons of mass destruction could be found, paving the way for a massive No. 10 about-turn.

So what was Straw up to when he briefed journalists on the new line on the European constitution (incompetently, by the way, since he omitted to speak to the political editors of either the Sun or the Dai6, Mail, the two figures at whom the shameless new policy was chiefly directed)? Was he acting for Brown? Or for Tony Blair? Probably a bit of both. Straw's most noteworthy political characteristic is his instinct for survival. Like most members of the Cabinet, he smells the Prime Minister's weakness, sees things moving Brown's way, guesses that Blair may be in more trouble after Hutton than most people realise, fancies being chancellor in a Brown-led regime; on the other hand is too cautious to risk a major break with Blair.

Meanwhile, the European betrayal only makes more pressing the question: what is Tony Blair for? He assured the Labour party conference that he had 'no reverse gear', yet his record is a litany of abandoned policies and discarded pledges, of which Europe is just the latest. At present Tony Blair is holding tight to Iraq, and boldly set out his legislation on university tuition fees in the Queen's Speech. What little domestic credibility he still possesses is vested in this controversial measure, which Gordon Brown and his people are fiercely against. On Tuesday night, in a Commons corridor, a Labour MP whispered in my ear that Jack Straw had been heard muttering that it was 'completely mad'. We are entering the decisive month of the Blair premiership.