Major's Effect returned to haunt William Hague the moment he chose to respond to the wounded howls on the Right over Peter Lilley's ill-calibrated, ill-timed speech of last month by tacking to a more Eurosceptic position in the run-up to next month's European elections.
There is nothing inconsistent in the Tory leader stating that he would like Britain to preserve the opt-out from EU regulations on any matters not strictly related to the completion of a competitive single market. But delivering the message in the wake of l'affaire Lilley makes it appear as a sop to internal critics and a desperate attempt by an embattled leader to shore up support on one wing of his party. Inevitably, pro-European Tories are now threatening, Lear-like, to do such things, they know not yet what, but they shall be the terror of the earth, including a breakaway party.
Unfortunately for them, none of the Tory A list wants to come. Chris Patten, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine all have other plans for pursuing their aims. Take away the big beasts, and there is something slightly pathetic about the Tory Europhiles. Like impotent dwarves, they jump up and down, prophesying the imminent end of whoever is Tory leader at the time and the installation of Mr Clarke as Tory leader. But somehow, it doesn't ever quite work out for them. Perhaps it never will.
Breakaways have a poor history of success in British politics and the wiser heads know it. I doubt that Mr Clarke, for instance, shares the impatience of many of his supporters. His strategy is to hang around, amiably reminding people now and again of his existence, speak in favour of the single currency if there is a referendum campaign in the next Parliament and wait to see what kind of Tory party emerges from the result, and, thus, whether he can lead it.
Tony Blair, meanwhile continued his strategic thrust by ramping up the pro-Europe rhetoric when he accepted the Charlemagne Prize in Aachen last week. If you attended only to spin and the resulting headlines, you would recall that Mr Blair wanted to banish something called Europhobia, which is Government newspeak for people who disagree with its intentions towards EMU.
Nowadays, all of Mr Blair's declarations about Europe amount to advocacy for Britain being in EMU. But once again - as in his Commons statement on the changeover plan - I am struck by the lengths to which he goes neither to commit himself irrevocably, nor to name our date of destiny with the Referendum.
To read the speech is to unearth a far more nuanced and critical view of the institution than the headlines suggested. He emphasised free trade and open competition as the roots of European prosperity. But can today's Europe present itself as "a powerful force for free trade" when it is locked in an absurd war with America about banana imports, the result of a thoughtless deal done to favour the former colonies of some members? Or while it refuses to lift the ban on American hormone-treated beef imports? Since you ask, I don't much fancy dining on a steak reared on Wyoming's finest anabolic steroids either. But a new beef war would undermine Europe's claims to be an open market. Let the stuff in, label it clearly and the consumer will decide whether to buy it. End of story.
In the substance rather than the rhetoric of Mr Blair's Charlemagne speech, there was a bit of William Hague trying desperately to get out, and in Mr Hague's speech in Hungary the same day, vice versa. Mr Blair's call for open markets, tax and welfare reforms, lower employment costs and a willingness to curtail the flood of social legislation could have come from either of them.
The Hungarian setting for Mr Hague's trip was a symbolic commitment to the widening of the EU to the new democracies of Eastern Europe. That is hardly the platform of a xenophobic, isolationist flag-waver. He was demanding that member states retain the freedom "not to participate in new legislative actions at a European level which they felt they wished to handle at national level". Up the road in Aachen, Mr Blair was saying that Brussels must "stop interfering in the minutiae of everyday life for purposes which seem obscure". Exactly, William would say, but how do you propose to stop this without fighting to keep the opt-out? And how does he intend to convince the new head of the commission Romano Prodi, a vociferous supporter of unitary European government, that it is best to let a thousand flowers bloom?
Mr Blair has shown that he is beginning to think like a Big European rather than a little one. Kosovo has opened his mind to what the new Europe should be about - the defence of liberal values and a duty of care towards those whose freedoms are threatened. He is right to drive home the message that we should not be content to cower in our safe corner of the continent while civilisation is dismantled in Kosovo and the new European democracies are kept out of the EU. But Mr Hague was equally right to point out an end to protectionism and CAP - Common Agricultural Policy - reform are essential if we are to make our promise of a wider and more stable Europe a reality.
It is time to blow apart the false antitheses constructed by the respective propagandists in the Euro war. The Tory leader is not a raving, sovereignty- obsessed Eurosceptic. He favours an enlarged and reformed union which accords member states more freedom of choice than the current drive towards economic and political integration allows. Mr Blair adores the European stage and wants to see Britain play a full part on it. However, that does not make him a full-fledged Europhile.
The appointment of Mr Patten as an EU Commissioner is intended to express both the PM's enthusiasm for British participation in Europe and wish to attempt to correct the inflexible instincts of the institution. In his mixture of supportive and critical instincts, Mr Patten very much resembles Mr Blair. The former Hong Kong Governor is a tough and battle- hardened negotiator. His Far East experience has also invested him with fresh enthusiasm for competitive markets, flexible economies and open trading systems. That is a gospel to which the EU has so far turned a persistently deaf ear. Mr Patten and Mr Blair will have to be clever, subtle and determined evangelists to get their message across.Reuse content