Leading article: Mr Hague's stunt is a sideshow to the real euro debate

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The Independent Culture
THE DECISION by the Leader of the Opposition to bring forward his ballot of party members on his European policy may or may not be born out of panic, but it certainly looks that way. The announcement was unexpected and dramatic. In political terms, it was the kind of showy move that has not so far been characteristic of Mr Hague's leadership of his party. The move has succeeded in commanding attention and in gaining the initiative for him, at a time when the Europhiles in his party have been again voicing their reservations about the official policy on the euro, and when even Lady Thatcher, albeit for very different reasons, has been casting doubt on his ability to win the next election. It is easy to see how Mr Hague will gain some short-term political advantage from his hastily arranged plebiscite. But it is much harder to perceive the lasting good it will do him, his party or the country.

Mr Hague is a shrewd man and has obviously calculated that most Tory party members will back him. The grass roots are by no means all Eurosceptic, but doubt about the European project, often co-existing with a nostalgia for Maggie, is well represented amongst the more active elements, the ones, importantly, most likely to bother to vote (will telephone voting be an option, by the way?). Moreover, the Conservative membership has, after all, already backed Mr Hague's leadership in a nationwide one-member- one-vote ballot, and would be loath to contradict themselves by humiliating Mr Hague now. By appealing over the heads of the Europhile grandees, he will be able to answer the criticisms that will inevitably emerge at the fringes of the Conservative Party conference by pointing at the overwhelming backing of his membership. The line will be clear; the grandees are out of date and out of touch; look at the result of our referendum. The critics should shut up and go away.

No doubt Mr Hague will get his way. But his referendum will not silence his critics, and nor should it. First, they and he know the precise nature of this particular vote. Asking your own members to, in effect, "back me or sack me", is to up the stakes to the point where only the most suicidal would be prepared to lose yet another leader on the European issue. Making it an issue of leadership as much as policy is a distortion of the proper use of a referendum to which political leaders are prey when in a tight corner. The second doubt surrounds the extent of the debate that will be possible. Why hold the debate in the short time remaining before the party conference, rather than at the conference itself? Debate is, after all, what conferences are for, even in an era of OMOV fetishism. The third query surrounds what Mr Hague and his spin doctors will take to be an "overwhelming" endorsement of the leadership line. If past trends are anything to go on, this will be modest indeed, with expectations, especially about a low turnout, carefully massaged.

Most seriously of all, it is a perversion of democracy to take, as the Tory leadership imply, a given result in a rather rickety vote as a signal to silence debate. This is, as all would agree, one of the most important, fundamental, far-reaching decisions for a political party to take. It is incumbent upon all in the Tory Party to speak out for what they believe in, and put "country before party".

Mr Hague's critics may or may not be out-of-touch with the party's grass- roots. But even if they are, that does not make them wrong, and it does not make it wrong for them to voice their doubts about the wisdom of Mr Hague's policy. One suspects that, when it comes to the real referendum on joining the euro, the one that the British people as a whole will vote in, the voices of those who appear to be in such a beleaguered minority in Mr Hague's party will find a much more sympathetic hearing than they will in Mr Hague's new stunt. It is Mr Hague who will look out of touch and old-fashioned when the people speak.