Analysis: Too many hypotheticals

The impending Lisbon treaty has triggered a rash of quibbling from our leading politicians far exceeding their usual reluctance to look ahead.

By Alex Stevenson

It’s a long-standing, tried-and-tested rule: don’t ever answer hypothetical questions. Doing so brings into play a minefield of potential pitfalls. Misguided comments can be quoted back at you with embarrassing consequences. Demonstrating commitment to a particular point of view is anathema to veterans of Westminster as a result.

Running into this brick wall again and again is part and parcel of being a political journalist, but it doesn’t stop us trying. Lobby hacks are more than justified in pressing the question of what the parties will do if the Lisbon treaty is ratified. Only the signature of the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, is required to turn it from being a theoretical proposal to an impending reality. You might think it would be incumbent on politicians to explain what they would do in this scenario. Yet the lack of Czech commitment is more than enough fuel to brush aside such questions as mere “speculation”.

David Cameron has the biggest headache on his hands, and this morning appeared the most adept at dodging the issue. His party has been seeking a referendum since the Lisbon treaty was created. What policy will he adopt if the treaty becomes law? Will he threaten a retrospective poll – or concede and move on?

Following the first law of hypotheticals, Cameron dodged like a pro. “It if becomes clear this treaty is going to be ratified… then we’d have to set out what we’re going to do about that,” he fudged. At one stage his heroic avoidance was literally nonsense. “If that circumstance comes to pass, a new set of circumstances will exist.” This was far from illuminating.

It came as a relief for the Tory leader he was able to distract the pack away from the fundamental issue of his party’s impending dilemma with the vision of an “all-singing” El Presidente Blair. “You were the future once,” he once famously taunted Blair across the dispatch box. Blair may be the future once again, but Cameron wasn’t interested in taking on the prospect just yet. “Maybe that time is coming closer,” was the nearest he got to admitting the Lisbon treaty’s ratification was imminent. “We will see.”

The Blair presidency has caused much more of a problem in No 10, following a report in the Guardian that Gordon Brown has asked two senior civil servants to begin quietly lobbying Blair’s case behind closed doors in Brussels.

Initially Downing Street jumped to dismiss the reports as – what else – “speculation”. The morning lobby briefing, held shortly before Cameron stood up, gave the prime minister’s spokesman the opportunity to outline why this was absurd. He was able to draw on not one but two hypotheticals.

“There wouldn’t be any sense in the prime minister [asking civil servants to start lobbying] given that a) we haven’t got the treaty ratified and b) Tony Blair hasn’t decided whether he will be a candidate,” he said.

Blair’s reticence is something of an irritation for Brown, who is doing his predecessor rather a favour in being so forthcoming. Yet the elusive Blair is only playing his cards as he should do. He doesn’t need to make any kind of announcement until the treaty is ratified. Doing so beforehand would be a foolish mistake you wouldn’t expect from a veteran of the ex-PM’s calibre.

It also explains the steadfast denials of foreign secretary David Miliband, who brushed aside suggestions he could be in line for the high representative role also due to be created under the newly-reformed EU.

“I am not a candidate for that. I am not available,” he said firmly on Sunday.

The foreign secretary will not have had to think hard before making such a forceful rejection. The treaty has yet to be ratified. Blair’s bid has yet to be defeated (his prospects would be zero if Blair got the top job). And he already has a job to which he must be 100 per cent committed. That’s a few question-marks too far.

If Cameron couldn’t cope with the hypothetical of what to do in the event of the Lisbon treaty being ratified, the question from one parliamentary sketchwriter completely stumped him. What did he think Blair, relatively young for a former prime minister, should spend his days doing? Surely he must have considered this – given he would probably end up a youngish ex-PM himself?

Cameron gasped, spluttered and stumbled his way through the answer. “I’ve got so many things to worry about,” he began desperately, before blurting out, “I thought he was sorting out the Middle East?” An awkward pause followed, before the man expected to be next in line for the nuclear codes admitted he was completely stumped.

Politicians resist hypotheticals because of the peril they present. Dealing with their answers is more frustrating for the hacks than it is for them, so it’s good to know that – at least sometimes – the tables are turned.