Monday, April 12, 2004
The Curious Thoughts of Chairman Portillo

In the Sunday Times yesterday, Michael Portillo wrote a curious article on Blair's current attitudes towards the European Constitution. As the link is unavailable, take my word that the piece concerned the issue of a referendum. Curiosity was piqued by the phrase, "armageddon plebiscite", where Portillo referred to a floating idea - that Blair would use the referendum in a "back me or sack me" John Major routine to vote for the Constitution or, as an alternative, withdrawal.

Blair faces significant problems in forcing a bill on the European Constitution through Parliament. Forty Labour M.P.s are identified as "opposed" and they nestle in the wider ranks of wavering doubtfuls who place elctoral victory above constitutional niceties. At a stroke, Blair could short-circuit a parliamentary battlefield in the run-up to the election. For those, who assume that he is averse to bold actions that undermine his own popularity and set him at odds with his party, there is one word, Iraq.

Portillo also refers to the secondary effect of a victorious referendum on secession (surely withdrawal):

If Blair is foolish enough to offer withdrawal from Europe as a referendum option, the British people might be bloody-minded enough to go for it. All through the campaign he would tell them that such a decision would be irrevocable and disastrous. They might fall for that, but I doubt it. The real result would be short term chaos, but not catastrophe. There would be nobody in government and almost nobody in opposition willing to carry out the people's instruction to pull out. So it wouldn't happen.

The new prime minister would announce that the attempt to ratify the constitution had been abandoned and seek a reversal of the vote on secession.

Portillo follows a tradition of commentators and politicians who argue that the good sense of the British people follows their own thoughts. The scenario that he maps out is flawed. Why would the public support a referendum for a second time when their voice has been heard on the first? Public disillusionment with politics and a visible unwillingness of the political classes to enforce the collective will of the public would result in their rejection. Portillo's roadmap is unrealistic because it does not take public disgust of politics into account and because the British people, like most others, have a tendency to reject prepared scripts.

(19.32, 12th April 2004)


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