By-election test for `Tory unity' over Europe

The Government hopes the recent White Paper will help halt its run of poll defeats. John Rentoul reports
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The Independent Online
The Staffordshire South East by-election gives the Tory party the chance to prove its new unity on Europe and turn the tide of electoral defeats, the Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said on a visit to Tamworth, the constituency's main town.

"There have been divisions in the past," Mr Rifkind said. "What was significant this week was that the White Paper which I produced was welcomed across the spectrum of the Conservative benches."

He would not be drawn, however, on the electoral impact of the expected decision to promise a referendum as a condition of joining a single European currency. Would it help the Tory candidate, Jimmy James? "As I don't yet know what the conclusion is, I can't speculate on what its political effects might be," Mr Rifkind said.

Mr James is in favour of a referendum. "If Parliament should decide that we should join the single currency, then I think a referendum would be a suitable way of gauging the public support." he said. But he added: "We want the best economic policy for our country. If that is that we should join a single currency, then well and good, but if not, we should not. I think the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have played it exactly right," he said. In the present Tory climate, an endorsement of Ken Clarke comes close to a factional statement.

Paradoxically, it is Labour's Brian Jenkins, the clear favourite to win the seat, who is marginally the most Euro-sceptical of the three main party candidates.

Mr Jenkins, leader of Tamworth council, said: "There are conditions in the real economy that must be met before we can even contemplate whether we can go into a single currency. But I am very keen to ensure that all the implications must be spelt out - and if that means it can't be done at a general election, then we would have to look at a referendum as a possibility."

Jennette Davy, the Liberal Democrat, was happy to be described as a federalist, and said she felt strongly about "partnership in Europe".

The decision by Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party not to contest the by-election means anti-EU voters must look to Andrew Smith, 27, the UK Independence Party candidate. He claims the vote on 11 April "could change the course not just of British but of European history".

In practice, however, the political significance of the by-election in this prosperous seat is likely to be that it will test the extent to which economic recovery is feeding through to a political recovery for the Tories.

Mr Rifkind insisted during his visit on Thursday, that Labour support for the European social chapter and a minimum wage threatened prospects for a town which has more home owners than Cheltenham, Chichester and Tunbridge Wells. But the depth of alienation against the Government makes it unlikely that the Tories will reverse their run of by-election defeats.

Result at 1992 general election: D Lightbown (C) 29,180; B Jenkins (Lab) 21,988; N Penlington (LibDem) 5,540; J Taylor (SDP) 895. Maj 7192.