Monday 7 April 2008

The night we went to Lisbon via the River Kwai

Only once have I felt moved to write a fan letter to a politician. It was in January 1997 and the lucky recipient was Michael Portillo, then Secretary of State for Defence, who had just lived up to his job title by mounting a virtuoso defence on the Today programme of the Government’s decision to order a new Royal yacht.

Of course I realised that the belated decision to replace Britannia was a cynical attempt to rally the support of Tory loyalists like me, who had been disgusted by the performance of the Major government, and that the failure to secure all-party support for the announcement made it totally pointless. The new yacht was duly cancelled by the incoming Chancellor Gordon Brown shortly after the election.

This seems somewhat ironic now that he has become so keen on the symbols of British nationhood. I can think of few things that did more for our standing in the world than Britannia, and its replacement would no doubt have been more useful for that purpose than those long-promised aircraft carriers, which are clearly never going to be built.

But back to Mr Portillo, one of the many next Prime Ministers of my lifetime who never made it. He was in Alnwick last Tuesday for what I can only describe as a one-man show at the Playhouse. When I booked my seat in the front row, it looked like we might be having quite an intimate conversation, but amazingly the theatre was full. Even more surprisingly, no-one had come to jeer, heckle or take revenge for the miners.

This might be considered a positive indicator for the Conservative Party, but for the fact that I’m not sure Mr Portillo can now be classified as a Tory in any meaningful sense. Those memorable events in Enfield on the night of 1 May 1997 have clearly destroyed what old-fashioned types would call, without irony, his bottom.

For the first half of his entertainment Mr Portillo told a series of old jokes, dressed up as personal experience. It was professionally done, though in the field of political humour he is to William Hague what Little and Large were to Morecambe and Wise.

After the interval, he took a series of sensible questions from the audience, and one unbelievably long and tortuous one about Portugal’s contribution to the Spanish civil war. Happily Mr Portillo proved to be as ignorant about this as everyone else in the theatre.

He made one observation that was as illuminating as a Very light on a battlefield. During the struggle over the Maastricht Treaty which did so much to destroy his government, John Major became gripped by the same sort of loyalty towards his fellow European leaders that the colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai felt towards the Japanese. He put his pledge to them to deliver the treaty before the interests of his party or his country.

Something remarkably similar has happened over the Treaty of Lisbon to Gordon Brown, even though he is, as Mr Portillo put it, “at least as eurosceptical as most Tories”. In all the furore over the lovely Carla, you may have missed the praise that President Sarkozy heaped on Mr Brown’s “courage and loyalty” (to Europe) for ramming the treaty through Parliament without the promised referendum.

What is the killer fact that officials whisper into every Prime Minister’s ear as he enters Downing Street, which makes him feel that he must always kowtow to Europe, whatever the domestic political consequences and the damage to public trust? Is it just the ancient belief that Britain cannot defend itself against a united Continent? Or is there, as one might hope, some more sophisticated thinking than that taking place?

I’d be prepared to write my next fan letter to the political leader, from any party, who gives us an honest answer to that question.

Written for The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, but not published as I was moved to write about the Olympic torch relay in London instead (see entry for 8 April).

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