Leading Article: Fine words, but a change of tone does not a policy make

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"IT IS not a change of policy. It is a change of gear," declared Tony Blair yesterday, announcing change-over plans for the euro. Well, that may be true. But moving up from first to second gear doesn't exactly get you on the expressway.

Within his own political terms, there is a lot to be said in favour of the Prime Minister's statement. While he announced no change in policy and no deviation from Gordon Brown's three conditions for joining, as laid down in October 1997, Mr Blair is now committed to defending the euro and its possibilities himself, rather than leaving it to the CBI and others to do the interpretation for him. But that is not the same thing as leadership, as well he knows. Like the crab, the Labour Government seems intent on approaching this subject forever sideways, ready at any moment to see dangers ahead and to withdraw beneath the shell.

So we, the British public, as well as British business, have been now told: "Yes, we must take this development seriously. Yes, we must make plans how to manage it if we do join. But no, Britain has not decided to do so yet. Nor will we until after the next election."

That is hardly helpful to businesses, which, given the cost and time they will have to devote to conversion, will be reluctant to take it on until the train is already leaving the station. Nor is it very helpful to voters coming to the next general election, who will find decisions confused if not totally overshadowed by a further decision that they will have to make after the event.

It is all very well repeating the October 1997 conditions as if they were some kind of mantra for a blessed life. Even on the Prime Minister's own account, they need to be looked at again. The old argument about diverging economic cycles has been undermined by the convergence of interest and inflation rates. True, there are real problems about the different rates of unemployment and the different levels of social costs between Britain and the rest of Europe. True, the last thing Britain may want at this stage is to hitch itself to a train running off the tracks into the socialist recidivism of Oskar Lafontaine. But joining EMU does not entail this. Just the opposite. It is only by joining the euro soon that we can prevent ourselves being damaged later, when policy has already been formulated. The Europeans may welcome Mr Blair's tone, but they are unlikely to be impressed by his words.

Maybe it is too much to expect a government of focus groups to abandon caution and to leap into a decision before the election - although this is certainly the course we would prefer. But it is surely not too much to urge the Prime Minister and his Chancellor to stop the shadow play and reveal their true intentions. The reality of public opinion on Europe is always, as it is on most economic issues, that the public will remain unenthusiastic for change but not resistant to it. There is nothing in the market research to suggest that most people are actively against Europe. But they are not convinced by a monetary revolution that has only just begun.

Given that, you can wait, as the Government is doing, for the mood to swing gradually in favour as the euro proves itself, or you can lead opinion and throw yourself into Europe to make sure it is a success. To the Government, the risks are all in early decisions.

For the country, however, the risks are all in delay. It can only damage our ability to influence Europe, undermine our future as the financial capital of the world's biggest economic region (just look at the ambitions of Frankfurt if you doubt that), reduce inward investment and - not the least importantly - hide our businesses from the need to face European- wide competition. Having come this far, Mr Blair, leave your shell and march forward.