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Wednesday, 23 May, 2001, 20:06 GMT 21:06 UK

The Curse of the Mummy

Mark Mardell

The Curse of the Mummy hung over all the Wednesday morning news conferences.

It would be nice to write that Lady Thatcher was joking when she said in her comeback speech that they must have been waiting for her: she'd seen a poster advertising The Return of the Mummy.

To be strictly accurate, one has to record that she made the remark without giving the slightest clue in tone or body language that this was at all funny.

But then Lady Thatcher is famous for not understanding the one-liners written for her.

Joke on parties

When the bandages come off the mummy, what shows through is Europe and her curse is that of clarity.

The joke is on the political parties she's left behind. All of them.

All are comfortable existing in a greyish fog into which she is determined to shine a spotlight.

All are trying to balance what it's sensible for governments to do, with what goes down well with the voters.

And that is often the central tension and dilemma of modern politics.

'Never say never'

Michael Portillo in particular would make a convincing and rather dashing Egyptologist in a pith helmet in scratchy black and white.

He and Mr Hague had to deal with the inevitable questions at the news conference.

For Lady Thatcher had used the word "never" about the euro.

This is what William Hague believes. It is what Mr Portillo believes.

It is what all but one member of the shadow cabinet believes.

It is what 90 per cent of the Conservative party believes.

But they can't come clean. Their motto has to be "Never say never".

If they did, bigwigs of the past like Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine would condemn them as unelectable and many business leaders and commentators would join in.

So they are left mouthing an uncomfortable rubric about "we are elected for a five-year term so we only talk about the next parliament".

But William Hague doesn't say he's opposed to murder and pillage for the next five years but he can't comment further than that!

Meaningless mantra

Labour cower behind five economic tests, driven like stakes in the ground between Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and the British public.

The five tests are largely a meaningless mantra, a charm against clarity.

They just about stop them being constantly asked whether or not we are nearer or further away from going into the euro.

Gordon will tell you, when Gordon is good and ready. Just be patient, children. And Gordon won't be good and ready until he's safely back inside Number 11.

There is a general assumption among ministers and Labour MPs that there will be a euro referendum in the next parliament.

From what I know of Tony Blair's position he is pretty keen on getting the argument up and running ... after the election.

That argument in itself will be very difficult for Labour to win, and there's a presumption that there is no point in poking a stick into the nest of predominantly Eurosceptic voters before it's absolutely necessary.

Certainly not in the middle of an election campaign.

The Liberal Democrats' position on the euro should be clear. They want it. Now. But in this election their task is to hang on to what used to be Conservative seats.

They probably need the backing of quite a lot of voters who hate Europe, let alone the euro.

So no big speeches about Europe from Charles Kennedy. A tiny bit on the back of their manifesto about the euro.

The mummy lumbers frighteningly forward ... She provokes the frequent comment from awed bystanders: "Say what you like about her, you know where she stood."

But it is so much easier to show clarity from the safety of a sarcophagus, politically dead, when you don't have to form a government, or keep a party together.



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