Leader: Baroness Thatcher's useful public service

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AFTER WAGING a long and sour conventional campaign against the EU, Baroness Thatcher, it is reported, tells her dinner companions she now plans to go nuclear. The EU is inexorably moving towards a United States of Europe, she feels. Therefore, she is intending to inform her party's conference this autumn that Britain must either renegotiate its ties with Europe, or withdraw completely.

The first reaction is one of weary astonishment. There she goes again, venting her tired prejudices and making life as much of a misery for William Hague as she made it for John Major. And "renegotiation"? Did we not go round that course 24 years ago, when the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, mendaciously claiming to have secured better terms from Brussels, won a referendum on continuing British membership of what was then the European Community? Doesn't the lady see that Britain is far too deeply involved with Europe to disentangle itself now?

Think a moment longer, however, and you realise that, whatever her motives, Lady Thatcher could be performing a valuable public service. What passes here for debate on Europe has long been a study in dishonesty by the two major parties. Labour trims and tacks, presenting entry into the single currency as a purely economic decision to be taken "when the conditions are right" - but glossing over the extra loss of sovereignty that membership of EMU will perforce entail. The Tories concentrate their fire on a single currency that they know is unpopular, ignoring the reality that on a host of issues, national sovereignty has long since been lost to Brussels, and ducking the more fundamental question: whether Britain should belong to the EU at all. They hide their disagreements behind Mr Hague's artful slogan of "In Europe, but not run by Europe" (though precisely what this means, even his spokesmen cannot say).

Lady Thatcher now threatens to ask that question. Her timing will upset party managers, with the Conservatives dragged back to the battlefield of Europe where they have already spilt so much political blood. The main beneficiary, however, would not be the Labour Party, but the beleaguered British public. On Europe, dissimulation has ruled for too long. At least with Lady Thatcher you know where you stand. Now we may also learn where others truly stand.