Leading Article: Get off the fence, Mr Blair, and start fighting for the euro

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The Independent Culture
IS TONY Blair the most dangerous man in Britain? In the light of his party's disastrous showing in the European elections - the worst since he became leader - the answer may well be "yes". Dangerous, that is, in the sense that Mr Blair's complacency about Europe has now put the prospect of Britain's ever joining the euro in jeopardy, with all the damaging implications that has for the long-term health of our economy. Mr Blair has no one to blame but himself for the fact that the Conservatives staged such an impressive and unexpected comeback in the impromptu euro- referendum they organised for the electors last week. We now have the appalling prospect of three representatives of the UK Independence Party (which wants us to leave Europe altogether) being sent to the European Parliament. We have reached a turning-point. Either the fight back for the euro starts here - led by the Prime Minister - or the battle will be lost, with incalculable consequences for jobs and prosperity.

Tony Blair has rightly been praised for the courageous leadership that he displayed in the Kosovo crisis. The Independent has also enthusiastically supported his attempt to lead European social democracy along a more realistic path. Some of Mr Blair's European rhetoric is refreshingly positive, and occasionally blunt on important issues such as reform of the CAP. But on the transcendent political issue of his generation - the euro, which will define his administration and its place in history - he has simply funked it and run away.

The Government's policy of wait and see, sitting on John Major's fence, accompanied by a stream of euro-sceptical spin, is now unsustainable. If we are ever to enter the euro then the cross-party campaign for a "yes" vote in a referendum must start now. The euro will change everything - not just for the economy, but for the nature of our democracy. William Hague, to give him credit, has understood this, and divined how the understandable misgivings the British public have about closer integration can be twisted to partisan advantage. With only the Pro-Euro Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and a few business people fighting a wholehearted campaign for an early British entry into EMU, the cause that should have been led by the Prime Minister has fallen by default. Disappointingly, even figures such as Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke maintained a rather shameful silence. No trumpet was sounded for the European cause.

The spin doctors tell us that the Prime Minister and the media were preoccupied with the Balkans war. Of course they were. But the Conservatives still managed to get their message across. In any case, people's negative attitudes towards the euro evolved long before the Kosovo crisis. The failure of Mr Blair's leadership on the euro is long-term and dates back to before the last election, when the strategic decision was taken to woo - and appease - elements of the euro-sceptic press.

Dismissing the Tories' campaign as "extremist" is unconvincing. They were not extremist so much as opportunist, taking advantage of the vacuum created by Labour's pusillanimity and, most importantly, getting "their" vote out. Labour failed to do this, most spectacularly in their heartlands. Mrs Beckett, who had the task of overseeing this ill-starred campaign, is a convenient scapegoat, but it is Mr Blair who chose to downplay Europe long ago.

Mr Blair says that "we have got to hold firm to the position we have". This is a pity. He is still very popular; but, as Mr Ashdown asks, "What's the point of being so popular if you don't use it for something?" That would be a sad epitaph to Mr Blair's premiership.