Nobody was expecting a yes. It was simply a question of how the no was going to be said. Britain is still not ready for the euro, think its chancellor of the exchequer and its prime minister (in that order). But if this comes as no surprise at all to anybody, in Britain or in Europe, then why is this latest expression of a classic foregone conclusion significant at all' It is so for three reasons. First, the terms in which Britain’s unreadiness is couched are a feat of rhetorical double-dealing. Second, the deliberations leading up to the announcement have been like a Punch-and-Judy roadshow in which all the nuances of the ever-eventful Blair-Brown marriage have been played to the hilt. Third, this happy image of cabinet and treasury united over a momentous decision is essential damage control for Mr Tony Blair’s credibility as leader of the nation and his party. Mr Gordon Brown has made it very clear that rejecting membership of the euro for a second time is purely “in Britain’s national economic interest”. It is therefore an economic, and not a political, decision. There are five tests which the euro has to pass clearly before Britain takes it on. So far, only one of these tests has made Mr Brown happy. In the meantime, he and his prime minister will concertedly work towards guiding the nation towards a “positive pro-European consensus”. They are even creating the constitutional provisions for a referendum on this issue. This is something of a master-stroke, designed to make both the pro- and the anti-euro lobbies equally hopeful, or equally hopeless, while not quite banging the doors shut on the faces of Messrs Chirac and Schröder.
If Britain has not been ready for the euro in six years, then the five tests are suddenly not going to all come off beautifully in just another year’s time. But saying no to the euro need not mean saying no to Europe — this is also part of the Blair-Brown message now. But keeping Mr Brown’s five tests at the centre of things means keeping Mr Brown there as well — with Mr Blair by his side, of course. And it is terribly important, all of a sudden, that Mr Blair be visibly in there with him. There is trouble brewing at home for Mr Blair, with those weapons of mass destruction still proving to be rather elusive. He might have to establish, all over again, that he led his country to war on honest principles. Within the party, Mr Robin Cook and Ms Clare Short have deeply challenged his credibility as a democratic leader over precisely these issues. Ms Short had warned Mr Blair not to be too eager to make history. Mr Brown has now made sure that the prime minister does not get too historic about the euro.