Election '97: Truth the Tories have to accept

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The Independent Online
The obvious truth can be avoided no longer: if the Conservatives win this election, they cannot form a successful government. They should therefore be kept out at least until they can. That isn't a statement of party-political bias: it is the only logical conclusion that can be drawn from the past few days of election campaigning.

Any government that wants to lead Britain has to have a sense of our place in the world. In our times, that means above all having a clear and plausible approach to Europe. There is a case for getting out, articulated by the UK Independence Party. There is, we believe, a much better case for staying in and working with allies to democratise and set limits to a union of states.

The Tories, it seems, can deliver neither. Any pretence that they could involve us in a single currency or engage in any alternative positive EU project however minor has been slowly and publicly shredded. John Major's personal position is wholly reasonable. But a dominant part of his party rejects the policy, in many cases openly. It is driving towards a complete rejection of cardinal aspects of the Treaty of Rome and its successor treaties: the logical end of this would be withdrawal and renegotiation.

Let us try to imagine a post-May 1 Tory government in action. Half of its backbenchers would be actively enthusiastic about, or complicit in, the anti-Brussels project headed by John Redwood. He is regarded as a deadly enemy by Major, yet he will control a swathe of new Tory MPs. There is a party within a party in the making here.

Others also are sniping and manoeuvring in a battle for the Tory succession. Michael Portillo has been making hand signals to his people. Kenneth Clarke has made it clear enough that he was appalled by the xenophobic poster of Helmut Kohl dandling Tony Blair on his knee. Michael Heseltine's once vaunted pro-Europeanism is exposed by the depressing news that he was the "only begetter" of that poster.

This may be enjoyable electioneering but it cannot lead to a plausible administration: how would they deal with their European counterparts in June? Would they simply shrug, smile with embarrassment and suggest that it should be business as usual?

No, it cannot be done. The Conservatives would be a government stunned by victory and shattered at the top. Many of its supporters would have given up on European integration, yet it would be a government which lacked any thought- through, plausible alternative.

This newspaper has no vote, but it seems to us that to choose such a government would be to choose paralysis and impotence.

A party seeking election must demonstrate that on the really big questions it is a party and not merely a poisonous argument. The Conservatives are fond of attacking voting reform because, they say, it would lead to unstable coalition governments. Maybe. But they are today offering Britain a coalition government too wide and unstable for thinking, non-aligned people to support. The Editor