Leading article: At last, some clarity in the great euro debate - except from Mr Blair

AT LAST we are beginning to see some clarity in one of the most important debates facing Britain. Two of the protagonists have done the voters the courtesy of letting us know what they stand for on the issue of joining the euro. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has nailed his European colours firmly to the mast. His support for the euro is crystal clear, and welcome. William Hague is almost equally unambiguous. He may have left himself some get-out clauses about joining the euro at some point in the far distant future, but his obvious opposition to everything about the euro presents the electorate with a clear-cut choice. From Downing Street, meanwhile, comes the sound of a decisive "Er...".

While the two opposition parties stake out their positions on either side of the euro divide, the Government seems incapable of doing anything other than fudge furiously. The coy dithering - to adapt St Augustine: "Please make us European, O Lord, but not yet" - is frustrating for pro- and anti-European lobbies alike.

The Eurosceptics spy, in the governmental confusion, a secret agenda for allowing the single currency to take hold; Europhiles see an abject failure to lead.

The Government's refusal to speak its mind is bad enough when it affects only its own policy-making. Now, it is seeking to disable the main group that is supposed to make a coherent public case for the euro. After long negotiations, it was agreed that Tony Blair would join Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine on a cross-party platform for the autumn relaunch of the Britain in Europe group. These two senior backbenchers, whose support for the euro is explicit and unwavering, had rightly insisted that they would not be manoeuvred into a position where they would speak their minds (and thus divide the Tory party) while the Labour Party looked benignly on. There was a simple quid pro quo: for the Conservative heavy-hitters to commit themselves publicly, with all the ensuing embarrassment for their party leader, the Prime Minister himself must also lend his weight to the Britain in Europe campaign. So far, so sensible.

Then, however, political cowardice led Mr Blair unilaterally to abandon this deal. Instead, he in effect made his appearance conditional on the requirement that the group tone down its pro-euro line. Thus, the group that was set up to prepare public opinion to accept the euro ends up coming out with the same murky fudge - full of "maybes" and "only ifs" - that daily oozes out of Downing Street.

Theoretically, the obfuscation can be seen as a useful means to an end. The Government cannot afford to be tripped up by running too far ahead of public opinion. But Mr Blair's failure to speak openly about the advantages of the euro - and about the disastrous effects of staying out, when the rest of Europe is in - gives Mr Hague a chance to win a battle he does not deserve to win.

Mr Hague is right to accuse Mr Blair of lacking courage to make the case for the euro. He is right in saying that the single currency is "probably the single most important issue in British politics today". He is right that people want to hear the debate. He is wrong only in believing that the euro itself is doomed or disastrous. If Mr Blair fails to respond, he will allow Mr Hague to win the argument by default.

Mr Blair likes to portray himself as a strong political leader. But his refusal to give a lead on this most important issue cannot be seen as anything except bottling out. Avoiding the argument does no favours to him, or to the political debate.

Rather than hiding behind Charles Kennedy's European coat-tails, while trying to bash William Hague as though he were a participant in a Punch and Judy show, the Prime Minister should be brave enough to find a clear European voice of his own.

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