Sorry, Mr Hague, but voters are warming to the euro

By the next election, he could find Euroscepticism a much diminished pool in which to fish for votes
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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM HAGUE would doubtless deny it. But there is an uncanny resemblance between the decision he announced on Monday to hold a referendum of his party's membership on Europe and Tony Blair's decision four years ago to hold a referendum in his party on the proposal to scrap Clause IV.

Just like Blair, Hague wishes to remove old sores. In Blair's case, nationalisation was seen as an outdated albatross around his party's neck. In Hague's case, divisions over Europe lie at the heart of the tensions and policy mistakes that led to his party's defeat last year. His hope is that the referendum will end the arguments by mandating his policy of opposition to Britain's entry into the single currency for at least the next 10 years.

But will Hague's gambit succeed in the way that Blair's did? To do so it has to achieve two things: it has to give the party a policy that will prove popular with the electorate; and it has to help change the voters' image both of Hague himself and his party in general. Alas there must be some doubt that it will achieve either.

At first glance, Hague's attempt to reposition his party on the single currency looks sensible. Every poll in recent years has shown widespread opposition to Britain's entry. For example, a Mori poll conducted in July found 50 per cent against a single currency and only 33 per cent in favour, the rest being unsure. As the Conservatives learnt to their heavy cost when the pound fell out of the exchange rate mechanism in September 1992, many people regard sterling as a symbol of national pride that they expect their government to defend.

Trouble is, while some of the opposition to a single currency might be deep-seated, some of it is also ephemeral. Opposition rose in the wake of the ERM crisis and once again after British beef was banned by the European Commission in the wake of the BSE crisis. Much of the trend towards Euroscepticism between 1992 and 1997 was simply the result of bad news about Europe.

Now that we have a government that is rather keener on conveying a positive image about Europe, there are already signs that public opinion is changing. According to Mori, 50 per cent might be opposed to a single currency now, but the same poll found as many as 64 per cent opposed two years ago. And an ICM poll found an eight-point rise in support for joining the euro immediately after the announcement last spring that the rest of Europe was going ahead.

The public thus appears open to persuasion on the euro. There is, after all, etched into the public mood a certain fatalism about the single currency, with as many as 70 per cent believing that the euro is fairly likely to be in use by, at least, 2010. If, by the time of the next election, large sections of British industry, the trade unions and, above all, the Government have come out in favour of Britain joining, Mr Hague could find Euroscepticism a much diminished pool in which to fish for votes.

Indeed, despite the depth of Euroscepticism within the Conservative Party in recent years, opposition to a single currency is noticeably lower among the Tories' traditional constituency - the middle class - than it is in Labour's working-class base. Opposing the euro might be a sensible marketing strategy for The Sun, but this does not necessarily mean it is also a good tactic for the Conservative Party.

But even if large sections of the public are still opposed to a single currency by the time of the next election, Hague's strategy will only work if the euro is a big enough issue for voters that it determines which way they vote. However, foreign affairs typically come well down the list of most voters' priorities. And in an important analysis of the British Social Attitudes survey, Geoffrey Evans, of the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends, has shown that the party preferences of floating voters have little relationship with their attitudes to Europe.

However, it is whether the referendum will enable Hague to achieve his second objective - that is to change voters' perceptions of himself and his party - that is most open to doubt. Not that he is likely to lose the referendum. Surveys of party members undertaken at Sheffield University have confirmed what every party conference observer suspected - a deep vein of Euroscepticism among the party membership, with almost a two- to-one majority opposed to Britain joining the single currency in particular.

But numbered among the opponents of Hague's policy are some of the "big beasts" of the Conservative jungle, including Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine. When Blair called the Clause IV referendum, he did so with the backing of all his party's key players, including his deputy leader, John Prescott. Opposition only came from well outside the leadership circle. Blair's ballot was a chance to reveal a new unity of purpose in Labour's ranks. Hague's poll could simply reveal old divisions once more.

Moreover, Hague's aims could well be undermined by the apparent decision of at least some Europhiles in his party not to campaign in the referendum. The opponents of Clause IV campaigned and lost. If leading Tory supporters of a single currency, such as Clarke and Heseltine, do not campaign, then they will not be seen to have lost. Instead they may leave the Tory leader with the headache of convincing party members that it is worthwhile casting their votes in an unexciting contest.

Indeed, perhaps the real analogy with Hague's move this week is not the Clause IV referendum, but rather John Major's even more dramatic decision to call a leadership election in the summer of 1995. Then only John Redwood dared to put his head above the parapet, and he ended up winning rather more votes than many had anticipated. Such an engineered contest left it very unclear whether John Major really was still the Tory MPs' first choice. And, in practice, it certainly did nothing to end his party's divisions.

Hague may have his day of victory when the referendum result is declared. But whether it will take him closer to his goal of reaching 10 Downing Street must be in doubt.

The writer is the deputy director of the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends