These big Tory euro-beasts will growl but won't bite

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IF YOU doubt how fragile is the truce intended to hold together the Tory party during the European election campaign which opens this week, consider the spot of bother William Hague caused within his own ranks yesterday. This morning, he unveils a Tory manifesto carefully calibrated to avoid elevating its firmly stated opposition to the euro in the next parliament as the exclusive, messianic, theme of its campaign. In yesterday's issue of The Sun, however, the Tory leader stated baldly: "As long as I am leader I will never agree to surrendering control of [the] economy to Brussels."

"Never" is a big word, not currently in the agreed party script; and it could be interpreted - and certainly was by some of the most zealous around Mr Hague - as meaning that he would never lead Britain into a single currency. When this apparent contradiction with agreed party policy was pointed out to him, the spin doctors were urgently dispatched to insist that there had been no change. It would take time - at least one parliament - to see whether EMU entry did involve surrendering economic policy. If it did not, entry was still theoretically possible. Crisis over.

The immediate point of this is not so much the question of whether British membership of EMU would mean a surrender to central control of economic policy, interesting though that is. As it happens, in an important pamphlet just produced by the Centre for European Reform a majority of EU specialists, including Sir Nigel Wicks, second Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, argue persuasively that, by and large, it will not.

No, the short-term significance lies more in the graphic way it illustrates the magnetic forces chronically pressing Mr Hague to harden his position on EMU still further.

The reason why Mr Hague will resist some of those pressures over the next few weeks lies in one of the most interesting variables in British politics: how long will the big pro-European beasts of the Tory party refrain from outright revolt against the leadership over EMU? Two sets of indications last week make that question all the sharper. One is that Chris Patten is likely to be the new British EU Commissioner, giving a front-rank pro-European Conservative politician a ready-made platform. The other is that Michael Heseltine is likely to stand in the next election. The more that Hague finds the Europhobic forces in his party irresistible, the more he is likely to provoke the leading pro-Europeans into revolt, with potentially disastrous results for the Tories, and forhis own leadership.

For one thing, a split can only help the brave, if risky, pro-euro Conservative breakaway party led by John Stevens and Brendan Donnelly, whose campaign was launched at the weekend.The auspices for Mr Stevens' grouping are mixed. On the one hand the proportional system means that he is less dependent on a numerous and sophisticated electoral delivery system, of the sort the large parties have and he doesn't. The media is all-important in these elections and he is entitled to hope that he may become the story of the Euro-elections, rather as the Greens did in 1989. On the other, even if that proves true, the war in Kosovo may mean that the elections themselves may attract less interest than they would otherwise have done. Secondly, the fact that the Tories did better than they feared in the local elections means that Mr Hague is relieved from fighting the Euro-campaign as an immediately embattled leader.

For Mr Stevens therefore, the behaviour of the pro-European Tory big beasts is a source of frustration. Why, he must privately ask, are the giants sleeping? Here he is campaigning on a platform that asks electors to vote for his party if they would rather see the Conservatives led by Kenneth Clarke than by William Hague. But the ungrateful Mr Clarke, not to mention Mr Heseltine and Lord Howe, are having little truck with it, insisting that they are in favour of maximising the orthodox Tory vote. There is, moreover, an intellectual logic in Mr Stevens' position. He does not believe that an EMU referendum will be easily won. The polls, which, unlike in 1975, still show that even a firm recommendation by the Government for a yes vote would not clinch victory, suggest they may be succeeding. If the Clarkes and Heseltines, Howes and Pattens do not defy their party now, the anti-Euro forces may succeed even more conspicuously, possibly making it too risky for Mr Blair to call a referendum at all.

It is hard not to sympathise. But this analysis ignores two important points. The first is that the pro-European Tories can hardly be expected to go at a pace faster than the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. And the second is that to be blamed for reducing Mr Hague's vote is an unattractive proposition, particularly for Mr Clarke, since some of his allies hope he could still inherit the leadership of the Tory party post-referendum. Conversely, if Hague does badly on a broadly anti-Euro ticket, but without the pro-Europeans making trouble, then it will serve to demonstrate the inefficacy of the Hague policy as a vote-winner.

There are nevertheless strict limits to this loyalty. To last through the Euro-election campaign, Mr Hague will have to be quite careful, as he probably will try to be. But after it is over, the truce will be much harder to maintain; for a start, if Mr Blair and Mr Brown spearhead the Britain in Europe campaign towards the euro, then they will be joined by Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine. More important, there remains the big question of whether the uneasy truce could hold under the much more intense pressures of a Euro-dominated general election campaign. In theory it can. Guaranteed their freedom to announce that they will campaign for the euro in a referendum, the pro-European Tory grandees could just about recommend electors to vote Tory. Provoked, they would find it much harder to do so.

A great deal is therefore up to Mr Hague. At one extreme, if he were to expel Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine for joining the cross-party pro-Euro campaign, Mr Stevens would pretty swiftly find himself deputy leader of his new party (an outcome he would personally relish). But there are other provocations well short of this which could split the party enough to risk an even more comprehensive Tory defeat in the next election than in the last. Yesterday's ripple around the leader demonstrated that Mr Hague appreciates this; but it also demonstrates how strong are the suicidal pressures to be more, rather than less, anti-European, come the election.