Blair seeks to break the mould

Bid to end decade of political stalemate
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair has decided to try to break the mould of British politics and is promoting alliances in the hope that left-wing Tories, as well as the Liberal Democrats, would back a Labour government programme in the Commons.

Even if Labour won a clear-cut majority over all other parties, the Labour leader would want to encourage the support of MPs from other parties on specific issues such as Europe, Ireland, education and health. Changes sought by some on the left in the decade since The Independent was launched - such as the ill-fated SDP - are reflected in his drive for political realignment .

The anxiety of moderate Tories about the direction their party is taking on Europe will be aggravated by Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, who today opens up a startlingly Thatcherite attack on "the socialist virus" of Europe.

Mr Lang, who is by no means seen as one of the Cabinet Euro-sceptics, told the The Independent that the "national cultures" of Germany and France were anti- competitive; he "furiously resented" the way in which Brussels tried to meddle in British business; and he said some EU partners were "tying their economies in knots" in an effort to prepare for the single currency. But it was his remark about Brussels-inspired socialism that will hearten Tory Euro-sceptics, and perturb Sir Edward Heath and other grandees, on the eve of the annual conference in Bournemouth.

Mr Lang, who is seen as a dark-horse contender for the succession to John Major, said it seemed Labour's only commitment was to the "agenda of the socialist virus that is creeping across Europe, that seeks to intrude into Britain through the social chapter, the national minimum wage, through the working time directive, and all those measures".

The attack follows a Saturday of calculated snubs and built-up tension between Mr Major and other European leaders at the Dublin summit.

Although the Prime Minister has stuck faithfully to the Cabinet line of the single currency, keeping open the option of eventual entry while actively engaged in negotiations for the critical terms of its creation, an atmosphere of cold hostility was being generated by Mr Major and Mr Lang towards the direction being taken by the EU. While that might just take the edge off the Euro-sceptic attacks expected at Bourne-mouth, One Nation moderates were perplexed by Mr Lang's vituperation.

One Conservative MP said: "When even nice people like Lang start talking like this, you begin to think it is being driven by desperation; they feel the ship is sinking and the anti-European card is the only card they feel they have left."

Certainly, there are a number of Conservative MPs who would support a Labour government on Europe, just as the Liberal Democrats supported the Conservative Government on Maastricht. It was pointed out by a leading Conservative backbencher that Labour MPs had backed the Heath government over Europe in 1971, after Common Market entry had been negotiated, and a number of Tory MPs would similarly return the favour to Labour.

Labour sources added that Old Labour-New Labour were not split on that score - John Prescott and other left-wingers had backed the Lib-Lab pact which sustained the Callaghan government in the late 1970s.

But some nervous Tories said that ad hoc support on different issues did not necessarily mean there would be a Tory split if a right-winger like Michael Portillo replaced Mr Major as party leader in opposition.

In a Sunday newspaper interview yesterday, Mr Blair said he believed a significant number of Tory MPs felt more at home with New Labour than with the Conservative Party.

More significantly, he said: "I would expect that if the Labour Party is trying to get through a good and sensible programme of change, some Conservative MPs would not simply oppose it for the sake of opposing it."

That point was confirmed by Conservative backbench moderates yesterday. But the Prime Minister dismissed an Observer report that a group of left- wing Tories, led by Peter Temple-Morris, were considering running their own whip and co-operating with Labour in the event of the Tories losing the election and being taken over by a right-wing Euro-sceptic. "It's complete and utter rubbish," Mr Major said on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost.

"As it happens, just before I left Downing Street, I had a message from the Macleod Group and Tory Reform Group saying the story was flatly untrue, and Peter Temple-Morris had said so. It's just a bit of backstage dirty tricks, I'm afraid."

Ian Lang interview, page 6

Andreas Whittam Smith, Julian Critchley, page 19