Former Brussels diplomatic Grande Fromage Lady Ashton, in an almost empty committee room, was asked what she thought about ‘Brexit’ (a referendum vote by our electors to leave the European Union).
She did not drop her marmalade pot.
She did not yelp in horror. Although not quite cheerful at the idea, she accepted that the world would continue to revolve on its axis if we politely thanked the Continentals for their interest and left them to it.
So often the EU ‘stay or leave’ debate is prone to hyperbole. Those who wish us to remain in the Union gnash their teeth and predict that the walls of Jericho will come tumbling down if the result goes against them. Yet here was a senior Eurocrat treating Brexit with near-equanimity.
Will Lady Ashton get into trouble for not being more alarmist? Will she have returned to her office yesterday lunchtime to find a shrieky message from Lord Mandelson’s PR-man chum, Roland Rudd, berating her for not waving her shroud?
Conversely, what might her composure do to the more baleful Eurosceptics? Half the fun of being a really peppery sceptic – one of the yellow sock and purple corduroy brigade – is in irritating federalists.
If the pro-EU lot are going to come over all laid-back and shoulder-shruggy about it, they are going to ruin things.
Before the Scottish independence referendum, many English voters made clear that they were unfazed about the Scots going solo. This lack of English vexation may well have taken the breeze out of some Scots nationalists’ spinnakers.
Lady Ashton (Lab) was appearing before the Commons Foreign Affairs select committee – the same dozy lot who questioned Tony Blair about Libya last week. So far in this parliament, chairman Crispin Blunt and his team have managed to conceal their acuity.
Lady Ashton is the sometime county health authority chairman who was catapulted, Major Tim-style, into the political stratosphere. After a brief stint as Leader of the Lords she was despatched to Brussels as EU Trade Commissioner.
Months later she was made the first EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security. This post was created under the Lisbon Treaty and was seen by some as a federalist conspiracy to have an EU Foreign Secretary.
The first hour of yesterday’s meeting made for slow cricket. It was 40 minutes before the word ‘electorate’ was heard and a further 40 minutes before ‘democratic’ was uttered.
In EU discussions this is par for the course. Nadhim Zahawi (Con, Stratford on Avon) eventually wondered what senior global politicians would make of a Brexit.
Lady Ashton did not clutch her throat. She replied calmly that the Americans and Chinese might regret it but the Russians would probably be rather more keen on the idea.
Mr Zahawi noted that Britain belongs to other bodies such as Nato, the Commonwealth and the UN Security Council. Lady Ashton did not say ‘ah yes, but the EU is much more important than those’. She let Mr Zahawi’s observation float on the pond.
Referring to David Cameron’s EU renegotiation efforts, she did ‘not think they will give us another deal’.
She made broad points about how it was better if neighbours sat around a table, discussing shared problems, but there was no dogmatic insistence on EU nation states pooling resources.
Mr Blunt put it to her that Britain was often a spanner in the EU works, preventing greater European stability on foreign and defence affairs. Lady Ashton did not demur. She was even almost skittish.
It may be that she was speaking simply as an individual. Or it may be that this former first lady of EU diplomacy was reflecting growing global nonchalance to – acceptance of? – the prospect of Brexit.
If that is the case, the Remain camp may just have surrendered its ace. One of the major arguments against Brexit so far has been strategic stability. If there is greater stability to be had in us leaving, it could be fetch-your-coats time.