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Friday, June 08, 2007

She lied and lied and lied (we're not exaggerating)

It's often said that one of Tony Blair's best assets is his skill at acting. The feigned sincerity, the lump in the throat and -of course- the comedy mockney accent - y'know.

Margaret Beckett's performance in front of the EU scrutiny committee yesterday suggests that his legacy will survive after all when he steps down.

The session began with the Labour Committee Chairman - Michael Connarty - saying that the current negotiations on the EU Constitution were taking place against a "background of non-transparency". This, claimed Beckett, was Berlin's fault. It is the way they wanted to conduct negotiations. Nothing she could do about it.

She then denied that the questionnaire that Merkel had sent to every EU government had any importance ( the letter which set out how they would make "presentational changes... without changing the legal substance" of the Constitution). She said it had “not played any real part in the discussions” on the new treaty.

When asked to give a bit more detail on these discussions she argued -puzzlingly -that there hadn't been any. "Nothing that you could really call negotiations has taken place."

She told MPs that the idea that the Constitution was being resurrected had been made up by the media. She declared that "There is nothing on the table" and that other countries were "in denial" about the Constitution's rejection.

When Bill Cash dared to suggest that she might not have a firm grip on the negotiations, she replied tersely “It’s not that I don’t know what’s going on, it’s just that nothing is going on”.

She carried on: “I’m afraid Mr Cash, you say to me ‘We know there are party-to-party negotiations”. There are not. There have not been. There has been a process whereby member states are occasionally invited to give some views. There have not been negotiations.”

Cash: “So there is something going on” Beckett: [shouting] “There is nothing going on”.

She even refused to be drawn into whether she would support individual proposals from the old Constitution. “Until it is clear that a proposal is being but forward and in what form I will reserve my comments until something is practically proposed. And at the moment nothing is proposed.”

But then the cracks started to appear. First she confused her own interests with the interests of the country as a whole - “I believe it is very much in the interests of those who wish to see British national interests protected and preserved that we do not carry out our negotiations in public” [pause] “Especially when they haven’t started”.

Michael Connarty asked what the sherpas (envoys sent by each country's PM to agree a framework on the new treaty) were discussing.

“Not very much”, she replied as she glanced to her advisers knowingly. She stumbled on: “I accept. I do accept... I know that the committee... I’ve read all manner of things, a number of fascinating articles about the negotiations that are no doubt going on. How the sherpas are beavering away, there will be a text here with brackets." [opening her arms in a dramatic Italian-style gesture while shaking her head] "No."

Then the plot thickened. The reason she couldn't answer any of the committee's questions was that it would make it easier for her to negotiate that way.

“The less I say about what we might in principle accept, and what we might not, the more I preserve the maximum amount of negotiating space to resist anything that I think is not in Britain’s national interest." She added: "we're not going to negotiate in public" (why did you show up then?)

"I appreciate that is unsatisfactory for the committee and I apologise to you for that. But since we are so much in uncharted waters of knowing what may be proposed. The more I say 'we can live with this, we can’t live with that', the more I’m giving away from my negotiating strategy. Which I’m always deeply reluctant to do.”

But she was happy to talk about the parts of the negotiations the Government are happy with. She said the Government could "live with" changes to the voting system and that she would “have sympathy” with proposals to introduce the subsidiarity mechanism from the old Constitution.

She even said it would be “unwise” to add things such as Copenhagen criteria (restricting future enlargement) , as well as clauses on energy and climate change.

The MPs were feeling frustrated. James Clappison said that he was going to ask for her view on the proposed EU President, "but I think I can make an educated guess about what the answer’s going to be”. The Foreign Secretary agreed - he has guessed right that the lady wasn’t for talking.

The whole performance was nicely summed up by her response to Richard Younger-Ross' assertion that there was nothing MPs could do to influence the Government in the negotiations and that the new treaty would be presented as a fait accompli.

She just shrugged her shoulders and looked away ... we wonder if she really has a place in the new 'humble', 'listening and learning' era of politics which Brown has promised...

Meanwhile, while the Foreign Secretary was insisting that the negotiations were "frozen", elsewhere Nicolas Sarkozy was announcing that, "Tony Blair and I have just agreed on what might be the framework for a simplified treaty. " Which doesn't sound very frosty...

The whole thing was like a piece of performance art: 60 long minutes of straightforward, in-your-face refusal to answer any questions. It made the famous Michael Howard Newsnight interview look like an excercise in open government. The only consolation, perhaps, is that soon all ministers will be touring the studios, having similarly difficult interviews, as they attempt to explain why the Government has broken its promise of a referendum. Now that will be fun to watch.

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