Tory Europhiles may be heroic but they are stuck in a terrible hole

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IT CANNOT be much fun being a pro-European Conservative at the moment. Probably it has not been a bundle of laughs for many years, but at least until the last election the Tory Europhiles occupied some of the big offices in government. Now the leadership, with the support of most members, marches the party further towards an unswerving Euroscepticism. What is more, the most likely successor, when not charming television viewers on the joys of Spanish railways, takes an even more inflexible position on Europe, accompanied by the doting approval of the newspapers. The present is bad, but the future looks even worse.

Yet the Europhiles have nowhere else to go. The formation of a pro-European centre-right party by two disillusioned MEPs is a red herring. The MEPs lack the clout and the glitter to generate sufficient momentum. For the few big players in the upper ranks of the Conservative party, the fate of the SDP is enough to deter illusions of a new, buoyant political life under a different banner. Anyway, most of the big names are instinctively tribalist. They do not want to leave the party. Rather, they spend some energy trying to persuade potential defectors to stay in the fold.

In other words they are in a terrible hole, to revive one of Ken Clarke's favourite phrases. Unquestionably they are the good guys in the Tory civil war, performing heroically against the odds. Their argument in favour of early entry to the euro adds to the heroism. But this should not blind us from the fact that they are in an awful tactical dilemma. In an interview with me for Radio 4's Week in Westminster last night, Michael Heseltine gave the clearest indication of how he and his senior colleagues planned to tackle it. He was speaking for several senior allies, as well as himself, as he confirmed that they met regularly to discuss tactics.

In the interview, Heseltine implied William Hague was an irrelevance in this debate. Hague was leader of the Opposition, not the Prime Minister. Conveniently this avoids spending too much time attacking your own leader. Instead the Heseltine gaze focused entirely on Tony Blair.

The Prime Minister was displaying "weak leadership" on Europe, Heseltine declared. He and his Tory colleagues were waiting for a signal from him to step up their campaign in favour of joining the euro. He said tantalisingly that, if Blair were to back the euro unequivocally, "all sorts of things would happen". Specifically he called for the referendum before the general election, convinced that an alliance linking Heseltine/Clarke via Ashdown to Blair and the Cabinet would be winnable.

On the surface this all sounds very tempting. Tony Blair has had the pro-European Tories in his sights for several years. Blair's co-architect in the realignment project, Paddy Ashdown, has been quite open about it. "The Tory party will split and Europe will be the catalyst," he told me soon after the election. A misjudged flirtation took place a year ago, when Blair raised the prospect of co-operation in a speech without giving Heseltine and co any advance warning (although Ken Clarke did have a meeting with the Foreign Office minister, Derek Fatchett, shortly afterwards). The moment appears to be drawing nearer now with the former Deputy Prime Minister crying out for Blair to let them all make common cause.

But my reading of the pro-European Tories' strategy is very different to those who predict a profound reshaping of party politics in Britain. The big Tory stars do not want to leave their party, nor do they see any hope of changing it before a referendum. But if a referendum were to be won, they are rightly convinced that the dynamics within the Tory party would change dramatically.

Once the voters had declared in favour of EMU, they could seize their moment to bring the Conservative party to its senses. In the circumstances of a "Yes" vote, Hague would have to resign or declare that he accepted the verdict of the referendum, removing the barrier that keeps pro-Europeans out of the front line. If Hague were to stand down, no candidate could credibly bid for the leadership by arguing against the verdict of the electorate in a referendum. For the first time for years, the Europhiles would be in the driving seat.

As Heseltine is convinced that an early referendum is winnable, it is hardly surprising he is pressing for one to be held before the election. "Get us out of our misery," he is pleading to Blair, as well as reiterating strongly held beliefs. For a victorious referendum holds out the prospect of a revived Tory party, purged of its extreme scepticism. The pro-European Tories are not interested in becoming fellow navigators on the road to a centralist realignment. They are interested in transforming the Conservatives from within. Winning a referendum would be their means to bring this about.

So Blair should be wary of the potential for political dividends arising from the Heseltine overture. Indeed it is quite possible - for this government can visualise the chessboard moves ahead of mere mortal strategists - that Blair will conclude the overtures should be ignored altogether: if the star Tories are not going to defect, he may not wish to be the unwitting instrument of a revived pro-European Tory party after a referendum. Instead, he may consider it more tactically useful to tease out the tensions within the Tory party for several more years, aware that only a referendum would resolve them.

What is depressing is that the tactics on all sides will dictate Britain's approach to the single currency. It is nonsense to suggest , as the Government does, that entry will be recommended when the economic benefits are "clear and unambiguous". The economic case is a factor, but there will never be a clear and unambiguous moment. In economics there never is. In reality, entry will occur when the political benefits are clear-cut. The gesture of friendship from Tory Europhiles is not clear or unambiguous enough.

Nearly always in Britain's relationship with Europe, internal politics has mattered more than the country's immediate and long-term interests, whether it was Harold Wilson pretending to be opposed to entering the Common Market or Margaret Thatcher arguing in favour of Britain joining the European Monetary System (as she did when leader of the opposition in the late Seventies, but only to make the Labour government appear economically weak).

Now the most distinguished and charismatic politicians of our age, from Blair to Heseltine, believe Britain should join the single currency; and yet we have no idea when or even if this will arise. One of the reasons for the doubts is that the charismatic politicians come from different parties and have every intention of staying in them after the battle, which temporarily unites them, has been won.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'