You have to feel sorry for Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his team. They are working around the clock to put together a deal for joint sovereignty of Gibraltar with Britain. But while the talks are still in deadlock up steps the leader of the Cataluña regional government, Jordi Pujol, asking for the same deal, ie joint sovereignty of the region with Spain. Judging by some of the comments I read yesterday other areas of the country could follow suit. Now, Cataluña's dream of greater home-rule is nothing new but Pujol's latest move cannot be dismissed and it adds another dimension to the already difficult situation which exists over Gibraltar. Spain is a shining example of regional government with devolved power to the provinces. It is way ahead of Britain and John Prescott's dream of regional assemblies in Britain is already a reality in Spain. But what Prescott must learn and what Spain is having to learn the hard way, is where do you stop? Cataluña has more home-rule than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. And they still want more. Now, Pujol is calling for joint sovereignty, what next independence? I am a firm believer in giving power to people on the spot but there is also a need for a one nation state. Regional governments must handle the day to day issues but national administrations must make sure that they have overall control. Cataluña should not be allowed to cloud the talks over Gibraltar. But it also shows how complicated the actual discussions are; in Britain the Blair administration has to be careful but the same caution must also be shown by the Spanish government.
The latest poll
Five years into the job, and 49 per cent of the UK electorate still think that Tony Blair is performing satisfactorily, according to the latest Guardian/ICM poll. The prime minister had a similar rating just before the election last year so he can be reasonably satisfied that, despite a series of setbacks on public services, administrative competence and party funding issues, his support is quite solid better, in fact, than most prime ministers can claim after a similar period in office.
The poll also showed that 67 per cent of voters are satisfied with Gordon Brown's performance the highest rating he has ever had and, presumably, a strong vote of confidence in his recent Budget. It will not have escaped No 10*s notice that the public (even the Conservatives) trust the Chancellor's economic judgement and will no doubt expect him to exercise that judgement objectively when he has to assess the five preconditions for Britain's membership of the euro.
David Blunkett and Jack Straw, the Cabinet's two other heavyhitters also fared reasonably well in this poll. But Stephen Byers was judged severely by its respondents only 18 per cent expressed satisfaction with his performance while 67 per cent said they were dissatisfied, giving him a minus 49 rating; last year at this time he scored plus 11. Opinion polls are sometimes criticised as being too blunt an instrument to give accurate enough readings of the public's views but they can certainly be trusted to give broad indications and the collapse in support for Mr Byers can only be described as catastrophic.