Leading Article: Why would anyone join the Tories?

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The Independent Culture
WHY WOULD anyone join the Conservative party? Sir Edward Heath says he would not, if he had his time again. And you can see his point. What would anyone join the Tory party for? Because they did not like the haze of authoritarianism around Tony Blair's halo? They should sign up with Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats. Because they do not like trade unions and want more free markets? New Labour is there already. Because they support the royal family? The same applies. No, the only reason why anyone would want to join William Hague's Fresh Start is because they do not like the European Union, and above all the single currency. Which is, of course, why Sir Ted is in such a bate.

Before the election last year, the survival of such pro-European big beasts of the jungle as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine at the top of the Tory government gave a misleading impression that the Tory party was somehow divided on Europe. Even the "soundings" taken of party opinion before Mr Hague's election as leader gave the wrong impression of Mr Clarke's popularity, because they were based on a ring-round of constituency chairmen, the last redoubt of the old guard.

In truth, the modern Tory party is overwhelmingly and fundamentally opposed to the European project. A survey of Tory MPs presented at a Political Studies Association conference yesterday revealed that fully two-thirds of them agree with the fundamentalist statement, "Joining the single currency will signal the end of the UK as a sovereign nation".

That is why Mr Hague knows he is quite safe in calling his ballot of party members on the policy of staying out of the single currency for the duration of the next parliament. And Sir Edward is right to be scathing about both the speed with which the ballot is being held and the policy itself. How can a policy of opposition to joining the euro be time-limited by references to the vagaries of the British electoral cycle?

Mr Hague hopes the ballot will put the issue to sleep, but Sir Edward's question exposes why it will fail. If the only reason to join the modern Tory party is opposition to the single currency, the party has no prospect of recovery. The electoral base of xenophobia, Little Englanderism, is too small to sustain an election-winning coalition. Mr Hague should be congratulated for his service to democracy in achieving clarity at the next election between fundamentalist opposition and Labour's open-mindedness. But he is doing his party no favours as long as people like Sir Edward and Mr Clarke, who are in some senses to the left of New Labour, say they would not join it if they had their time again.