TONY BLAIR'S shambolic surrender to the demands for a referendum on the draft European Constitution is the clearest sign yet that his premiership is close to collapse. When Blair came to office, he was distinguished from most of his predecessors by his enthusiasm for the European Union (EU).
Had he not been outmanoeuvred by Gordon Brown, he would probably have held a referendum on British entry into the euro soon after his election victory in May 1997. Before the war in Iraq there was quite widespread briefing by Downing Street that Blair would use the political capital gained by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein-remember the "Baghdad Bounce"?-to force Brown to give way on the euro.
But Blair has now capitulated to the Eurosceptical Tory right. They have been mounting an increasingly shrill campaign against the European Constitution and for a referendum. A turning point apparently came when Rupert Murdoch ordered Rebekkah Wade, the odious editor of the News of the World, to carry an article denouncing Blair as a "traitor" for not holding a referendum.
The resulting U-turn has left the hard core of ultra-Blairite pro-Europeans-Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers-in despair. "In private, it is the prime minister's closest allies who are most intense in their fury with him for what they see as the most abject retreat of his premiership," Andrew Rawnsley reported in last Sunday's Observer.
Senior ministers like Charles Clarke haven't concealed their anger both at the decision and at Blair's failure to take it through the cabinet.
But the way the government blundered into the referendum is a sign, not of Blair's strength, but of how much he has been weakened. Apparently Jack Straw was the architect of this decision. Straw is the Blair government's ultra-grey man, the equivalent of Sir Geoffrey Howe under Margaret Thatcher. Denis Healey once famously said that being attacked by Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep.
The fact that an attack by Howe precipitated Thatcher's downfall in 1990 showed how weak she had become. Similarly the fact that dead sheep Straw is now making the running-even informing fellow cabinet ministers of the referendum U-turn-indicates how far advanced is the decay of Blair's premiership.
Successive backbench rebellions have left Blair unable to guarantee getting the European Constitution through parliament. The Tories and Liberal Democrats could have combined in the House of Lords to insert a pro-referendum amendment that the government might have found it hard to persuade Labour MPs to override.
Iraq has been the decisive factor in weakening Blair. Andrew Rawnsley reports "one extremely disappointed pro-European who would normally be counted as one of the prime minister's closest allies" as saying, "The Tony Blair I knew pre-Iraq would not have done this. It's a sign of him being weakened and defensive."'
Tony Blair is paying for his role in engineering the conquest and occupation of Iraq. Far from being able to "move on" from Iraq, he will be haunted by it to his grave.
That doesn't mean that the issue of the referendum itself can be ignored-even though Blair apparently forgot that Britain will have the European presidency in the second half of next year, which means that a vote on the constitution probably can't take place till 2006.
The European Constitution, drawn up by an unelected convention, will probably be finally agreed on at an EU summit in June. It doesn't create the European federal "super-state" denounced by the Tories. But the draft does have two fatal defects. First, the provisions for democratic control over European institutions are very limited.
Secondly, the draft constitution builds on the 1985 Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 in hard-wiring free-market neo-liberal economics into the workings of the EU.
The very strict restrictions on public spending and borrowing imposed under the Maastricht Treaty on states that joined the euro have trapped continental Europe in economic stagnation and high unemployment. The new constitution would embed neo-liberalism even deeper in European institutions.
This means that, when the referendum finally comes, the left should campaign for a no vote, but on an internationalist and anti-capitalist basis that clearly distinguishes us from the Tories.
Defeat in the referendum would be the final nail in Tony Blair's coffin, should he by some lucky chance manage to survive till then.
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