The rifts open in the press lords' anti-euro front

Mr Black's intervention raises the question of how the media cookie will crumble in the election

I LIKE to picture the scene among my former colleagues at The Daily Telegraph, yeoman Tory Eurosceptics to a man and woman, when a submission from the proprietor, Conrad Black, arrived on the editor's fax machine, accompanied by one of his understated notes saying something like, "Put this in the paper if you think it's any good".

Mr Black relishes setting the cat among the pigeons. He has, down the years, woken up his Canadian readers by suggesting that the country might fare better if absorbed into the United States, and written an extravagant laudation to miniskirts in the pages of The Daily Telegraph. Recently he ventured that Britain should forsake the protectionist EU and join the North American Free Trade Association.

This week's intervention was, at the very least, a tactical retreat from the wilder shores of probability. Under the headline "If Germany is for real, it's time to rethink Europe", Mr Black laid out circumstances in which "the legitimate British concern about economic Euro-integration would be alleviated". Coming from the owner of a newspaper that has consistently resisted the single currency, and roasted the European Union on a daily basis, this was not entirely expected.

The article lavishly praised Gerhard Schroder's intention to shift the emphasis of the German economy from preserving jobs to creating them. Should the Chancellor's ambitious wish-list of slashing the size of the public sector, drastically reducing spending and cutting taxes be realised, he argued, British Eurosceptics would have less to worry about and, by suggestion, a less solid foundation for their opposition.

Mr Black ventured that, "Almost no serious British Eurosceptic has any grievance against the principal continental nationalities". Tell that to Norman Tebbit, Bill Cash and the gang. The exploratory tone and approach are striking. For some years now, centre-left EMU sceptics such as myself have bemoaned the small-minded, latently xenophobic nature of right-wing Euroscepticism. We have sought to take the debate on to more reasoned territory and called on the Government to be stricter in the application of its own Treasury criteria for membership.

It has been possible to distinguish centre-left EMU sceptics from Tory Eurosceptics by the refusal of the latter to envisage any circumstances at all in which British membership of a single currency would be acceptable, since their objections were bound up with an understanding of immutable national sovereignty that brooked no alteration.

Now, however, Mr Black has isolated an intriguing question: what if the main economies of Europe should embrace what he calls "the Thatcherisation of Europe - not the de-Thatcherisation that Eurosceptics have rightly feared"?

The centre left will be allergic to this terminology - not all of us dwell on memories of Lady Thatcher's reign with the same devotion as the Telegraph's proprietor. But the question of how much European economies and institutions would have to reform in order for the nature of EMU to be even theoretically acceptable commands attention.

The obvious objections to Mr Black's position are, first, that Germany is unlikely to restructure as completely as he envisages, or at least not for a very long time. Nor does he mention France, the other country that is driving integration. Under Lionel Jospin, it is advancing in some spheres - notably privatisation. But there are no signs that the Elysee is serious about cutting public spending; one thinks a touch enviously of the lavish French NHS. Any attempt to shed public-sector jobs would occasion a far more bitter struggle with less emollient unions than Germany's.

In any case, the market model most likely to emerge, while possibly a lot more liberal than at present, would be unlikely to satisfy the desires of ardent free-traders. The vast German insurance firms have fought tooth and nail to keep foreign contenders out of their markets; the French have not matched their privatisation drive by allowing outsiders to bid for banks and media titles. For all the claims of the single market, the free flow of capital on the model of the United States remains a distant dream in Europe,

The more immediate consideration raised by Mr Black's intervention is how the media cookie will crumble in the run-up to the next election, and any referendum on entry into EMU. Perception tends to lag behind events here - New Labour is still prone to occasional rage about the "Tory press" even though the current landscape is overwhelmingly favourable to the Government. The pro-EMU lobby has a similarly paranoid tendency to lash out at Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black as die-hard Eurosceptic forces, distorting the debate in Britain. In fact, their respective armies are highly changeable forces, and there may well be more milling and churning ahead than either side in the debate has bargained for.

For the first time, in the next election we may see a split between the party that newspapers urge their readers to support, and their recommendations for or against entry to the single currency. Unlike in 1997, a paper's EMU stance will not necessarily determine whether it supports New Labour or the Tories.

On present indications, The Sun is likely to be for New Labour but against EMU, as is The Times. The Sun is a far less reliable Eurosceptic commodity than it appears. If public opinion moves in favour of the project, it is easy to imagine it flipping sides. The Daily Mail is likely to remain anti-EMU, but it is not certain whether it will support Mr Blair at the next election. The same goes for The Sunday Times, which has just published a far harsher account of Germany's reformist intentions by Mr Murdoch's senior advisor, Irwin Stelzer.

The liberal papers - this one and The Guardian - are likely to line up in favour of New Labour and for UK entry into the single currency, as are The Express and The Mirror. That leaves the Telegraph as the sole daily paper committed to both the Tory Party, and backing Mr Hague's stance against the single currency. So the Tory leader may find himself deemed, by the papers we would expect to underwrite a Conservative revival, to be right about Europe - but still too far from electability to merit their election endorsement. Mr Hague cannot have been much reassured to find his one previously reliable ally among proprietors publicly thumb-sucking about alternative futures.

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