Podium: The Tories must be a pro-euro party

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THE CRITICAL choice facing this country is now coming to a head. In as little as two-and-a-half years' time, we may well face the moment of truth.

A referendum is to be held that will shape Britain's place in Europe, and our power as a nation in and through Europe, for many decades to come. It is vital, as a European player and indeed as a global player, that we make the right choice for Britain's future.

If the Government recommends UK entry into the single European currency, once the economics of membership are right, I and many other pro-Europe Conservatives will support the "yes" campaign with enthusiasm.

That is why I have already joined the advisory board of the Britain in Europe campaign as an observer. That is why, as we have signalled, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine, I - and others - will help launch the full, cross-party political campaign later this year, once the European elections are safely out of the way.

Some have criticised us for waiting until the summer. I disagree. We have made it clear to our party leadership that we believe there are perfectly good left-right issues on which the Euro-election campaign can and should be fought: the social chapter, deregulation, industrial policy, tax harmonisation, spending priorities, and the handling of maladministration and fraud.

This should be the battle-ground of June's contest.

The European Parliament's power has grown decisively. The key issue is who controls that power. This may be - indeed it certainly is - a Euro- election, but it is not - and should not be - an election about the euro. The European Parliament cannot and will not decide whether Britain joins monetary union.

As we believe that the euro is not the issue in June, we do not wish to see the Euro-election converted into a mini-referendum on the single currency. Divisions of opinion about the euro could make or break the Conservative campaign in this election.

Those of us who take a positive view of Britain's future within the eurozone have signalled our desire to make, not break, that campaign - on the assumption that good sense and a balanced approach will similarly characterise the official Conservative campaign.

That requires a degree of self-discipline and self-restraint to be evidenced on all sides. There is a serious chance that it will be so.

After June, the real battle over EMU will begin. Pro-Europeans of all parties and of none should be under no illusion about the challenge of winning a future referendum. The forces ranged against us are considerable, their financial firepower is impressive, and their arguments, however wrong, are often well put. This will not be an easy fight.

My strong belief is that the Conservative Party can never win power as a euro-hostile party, because it will be a divided party and one bereft of its business base. But this does not mean that the British people can never vote "no" in an EMU referendum. Public opinion is up for grabs.

The attitude of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will be the critical determinant of how the public reacts. They must show that they want Britain in and intend to lead Britain in, and are actively preparing the nation for this historic change.

As we have said ever since the Chancellor's statement of October 1997 - in effect ruling out entry or even a referendum in this Parliament - Britain will not join EMU by accident. Getting to a "yes" vote on the euro involves not waiting for the economics to come right, but positively working for them to come right. It involves leading from the front and using scarce political capital to get the right answer to the most important economic and political question facing our country today.

The National Changeover Plan, announced by the Prime Minister on 23 February, was a start. But it needs to be part of a rising curve of commitment and activity. I believe that Tony Blair did cross a Rubicon on that day - and that now there is no going back. And he did not cross the river just to remain standing on the bank. He signalled - and he will be held to that signal by the Euro-sceptic press - that by the end of his time as Prime Minister, he wants Britain to be in the single currency, as a full and equal partner in the EU.

That is why we pro-European Conservatives, welcoming that aspiration, saw Mr Blair's February statement as significant. To carry the campaign forward requires the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to lead the national campaign for euro-membership, rather than to see this as something organised by others. Just as we shall participate in this campaign from the summer, so must they. I believe they will.