Tories playing patriot games over Europe

The anti-Europeans are prepared to take any risk in defence of Little Britain. But the pro-Europeans mean business too
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The Independent Online
Lord Howe was one of the first politicians to see, some months ago, that the danger posed to his party in the 1997 election by its irreconcilable differences on Europe was an almost exact echo of that which Labour faced over defence in 1983. So when he says, as he did yesterday, that his own support for the Tories would "diminish" if Malcolm Rifkind's "hostility" to the single currency were to become official party policy, he knows very well into what dangerous waters he is treading.

James Callaghan denounced Labour's unilateralist defence policy in terms which blew apart the fragile truce that had been constructed between the right and left of the party. Whatever other faults he may have had, Lord Callaghan didn't enter the debate for reasons of personal vanity; apart from that one deadly intervention, he has never been a "back-seat driver". He did it because, finally, he thought the defence issue was bigger than party. He rightly thought that ideologues of the left might keep the party out of office for a decade or more. And he didn't really mind who knew it.

Lord Howe had the business classes as much as himself in mind. But his remarks demonstrate how at least some of the Tory pro-Europeans are now capable of making the same kind of decision that Callaghan took in 1983. The world discovered the inappropriateness of Denis Healey's famous gibe about Lord Howe during the regicide of 1990. And yesterday the dead sheep became Ken Clarke's Rottweiler.

We are not yet at the Callaghan stage for the very good reason that thanks to Kenneth Clarke, and quite a lot less visibly Michael Heseltine, the Cabinet still - just - has a policy which takes into account the country's rather than merely what its managers conceive to be the party's interest. By any logic other than of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, this is what keeping open the options for EMU, if by any chance it proves to be a success and the British people decide in favour of it, must be.

Never mind that Malcolm Rifkind, whether in single-minded pursuit of his leadership ambitions or of what The Sun dictates should be his party's electoral strategy, tries to rewrite it in a radio interview. (His words simply could not be squared with a formal Cabinet text which, beside saying that a 1 January 1999 starting date was "very unlikely", also says that "if a single currency was delayed we would of course retain the option to join at a later date", whether that was in the first wave or not.)

Or that the Chancellor has to visit the Foreign Secretary's official residence at midnight and stand over him while he agrees to restate a policy already agreed unanimously by the Cabinet less than a month ago.

Clarke does not give up; he is in deadly earnest. And he won yesterday's battle handsomely because John Major knows that losing his Chancellor would be worse even than disappointing the leader writers of The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail and The Sun.

This bears repeating because there is unmistakeable evidence, available to both the main parties, that the strident Euro-scepticism, whether press- or politician-driven, is making an impact on the doorsteps. Polling focus groups and canvassing is throwing up a clear finding that the salience of Europe as an issue has started to rise.

Some estimates now put Europe at around third place in voters' lists of issues causing concern where it was at eighth or ninth in the middle of last year. This doesn't mean that the country has suddenly swung over to rampant nationalism. But at the very least it does mean that voters who are deeply suspicious of the EU are more enthusiastically citing it as an issue which could decide their vote. This is partly why Labour has been shoring up its defences against the wilder charges that it is ready to sell out British interests.

Now this doesn't happen by accident: if you have five national daily newspapers - including all the mass-circulation newspapers except The Mirror - committed to a common Europhobic ideology; if the mass-circulation Sun runs as it has been doing this week a series of reports from European cities which draw an unremittingly bleak picture of late-20th-century economic and social decay and lays the blame for it almost exclusively on EU and domestic social legislation, then it makes an impact. Especially if you have a political party staring defeat in the face. In addition, all the aspiring Tory leadership candidates know that there will be a majority of their party's MPs after the election who will be identifiably on the Euro-sceptic right of the party - ranging from those who simply oppose the single currency outright to those who are now serious about withdrawal. (So serious that there is even fresh talk of Norman Lamont staging a surprise leadership challenge on a ticket of straight withdrawal.) What's more, if Labour's poll lead starts to narrow - and it hasn't shown much sign of doing so thus far - then the Euro-sceptics will shout triumphantly that an all-out nationalistic campaign offers the best hope of victory, even if it's the economic recovery rather than Europe which is really making the difference.

But there's a big catch. And Lord Howe illustrated it in his quiet way yesterday. As it happens Clarke, Howe and others believe that the improving economy offers them a better platform on which to win the election. The Chancellor at his meeting with backbenchers on Wednesday night was trying to remind them precisely of the importance of an improving economy to the coming campaign. But in any case, Lord Howe and others are not now going to swallow the shift in policy attempted by Rifkind on Wednesday.

And that means that Major cannot bow to The Sun and his own Euro-sceptics without exposing divisions on a scale which would more than cancel out the electoral value of nationalism.

Those on the pro-European wing aren't going to go quietly. During the Maastricht debates those on the right threatening John Major with defeat, even a defeat which might bring down the Government, used to say that they were ready to put the national interest above the party's; now the pro-Europeans believe it's their turn.