Turn again, Mr Hague

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ONE OF William Hague's first political jobs was as my PA in the 1983 General Election. Sixteen months ago, he was elected leader of the Conservative Party, against a manifestly more popular and experienced rival, Kenneth Clarke.

William Hague is a man of many talents. But that is not why he rose so fast, so far ahead of time. He was elected for one reason above all. In government, Mr Clarke had successfully insisted that Britain should keep open the option of joining the single European currency during the subsequent parliamentary term. The Chancellor's stand emboldened the Labour Opposition to do the same.

Too many Conservative MPs could never forgive Mr Clarke for getting his way on this critical issue. They voted instead for a man prepared to rule out UK participation, not only in the new Parliament, but for the lifetime of the next one after that.

Although it won him the leadership, Mr Hague's opportunism came at a high price. He has ever since been imprisoned by his anti-EMU mandate, and by the prospect of sudden death from the right, if ever he moved away. So began the Conservative Party's anguished opposition, fixed firmly on a collision course with reality.

At last year's party conference, the new leader sensibly tried to break out of this straitjacket, heralding opposition to EMU only for "the foreseeable future", a period that might extend for as little as three to five years. Within days, the threat of front-bench resignations from the right had forced a policy switch back to the original two terms stance.

That proved to be a defining moment. Since last October, Mr Hague's EMU policy has progressively hardened. The language of his CBI and Fontainebleau speeches foresees potentially insuperable economic and constitutional objections to EMU entry. Even Francis Maude's silken words about "seeing EMU through good times and bad" are designed to foreclose entry for 10 or 15 years.

Strategically, Mr Hague has preferred to lose his centre rather than his Europhobic right, as figures less indispensable to his survival as leader have resigned one by one. The nominating process for candidates in next year's European Elections has been used to impose a single line. Lifelong pro-Europeans are being driven into silence, through fear of dire sanctions if they break ranks.

The importance of the recent party ballot on EMU is that it has been fashioned as an instrument of political control. By exploiting the inevitable, and instinctive, loyalty of party members to their leader, Mr Hague is trying to claim a mandate to exclude from senior party position any pro- European unprepared to buckle to his will.

His chilling words about the Euro-election - "No one can be allowed the luxury of saying whatever they like, regardless of the effects on the rest of the party" - will next be applied to Westminster. The spectre of deselection looms large.

When Cecil Parkinson talked of party members "giving short shrift" to anyone who did not back the leadership line - that is, anyone expressing a view which, only 18 months ago, was the policy of government and party alike - we got a taste of things to come.

The plan, as Mr Hague explained on Monday, is to fight the next election as the only party committed to "saving the pound". Saving the pound is hardly something you would wish to do for just another five years. "We will not sacrifice the greatest symbol of our freedom and our history", he says. So much for a pragmatic assessment of the consequences of the euro. Although the Tory leadership asserts that it has not ruled out EMU in principle, in practice it is doing so with every passing day.

William Hague claims that this week's ballot has drawn a line under debate on EMU within the Conservative Party. Not so. As surely as was the Maginot Line in 1940, this line will certainly be out-flanked or overrun - by events.

The tragedy for Mr Hague is that the real debate on Europe has scarcely begun. Unlike Clause Four in the Labour Party, with which Europhobe strategists draw spurious comparisons, EMU is a substantial policy issue whose future importance can only grow. Big business and agriculture, two core pillars of traditional Tory support, simply reject the leadership line on the single currency. All of us meet businessmen who regard the Tory position on EMU as madness, and say so.

Of course, nobody supposes that British public opinion is wildly enthusiastic about monetary union, even if it is moving steadily in favour of entry. Polls show that around three-quarters of the electorate believe that Britain will join EMU within the next decade. They want politicians to keep all options open. That's why the wait-and-see policy of both the Major and Blair governments has always been seen as good common sense.

Even among the shrunken band of Conservative sympathisers, more than two-thirds prefer a more flexible approach to the leadership's hard line: 17 per cent want to join EMU as soon as possible, and 52 per cent want to rule nothing in or out. There is little appetite for shutting down choices as a matter of ideological principle.

As EMU happens, and as a euro-zone six times the size of the British economy emerges on our doorstep, the arguments in favour of pragmatism, not dogmatism, will become overwhelming. The only logic of ruling out EMU for some random period of time - in this case up to nine years - will lie in the internal dynamics of Tory politics. The party is locking itself into a one-way bet on EMU's failing. Mr Hague has been driven to abandon his earlier, more sensible instinct to try to set European divisions aside - "the less said about Europe the better", he used to say on becoming leader - and has been forced into a political cul-de-sac defined by the far right. Yet reviving the party depends on escaping the politics of the Eurosceptic ghetto, not pandering to it.

Regaining the 4 million votes lost at the last election lies not in hardening outdated positions, but in offering a positive, forward-looking vision, appealing to business people and to the young. Only 7 per cent of today's voters aged under 35 are Conservative identifiers, compared with more than three times as many styling themselves Labour.

If the Conservative Party is to have a serious chance of political recovery, its leaders must face up to the new reality: for many millions of people, making a success of Britain in Europe is now an integral part of the future. Any other route may win Mr Hague the short-term plaudits of an older generation, and of a Europhobic press, but it will not win him power.

Lord Howe of Aberavon was Chancellor, 1979-1983, Foreign Secretary, 1983-1989, and Deputy Prime Minister, 1989-1990