When Ken Clarke stood to open the debate on Europe there were twice as many Tories in the Chamber as members of the combined opposition. The Prime Minister himself was present, along with all the most active Europhobes and pro-Europeans. This was not a debate between the Government and Opposition, but a special session of the Conservative Party conference. Tony Blair (who has a country to think about running) stayed away.
Mr Clarke's speech was frank, clear, intelligent and almost heart-breakingly brave. It also cannot possibly be what John Major wanted to hear. Constantly interrupted by the large gang of Redwoodites and former whipless ones, the Chancellor's exegesis took the form of balancing the advantages of a single currency against the disadvantages: "upsides and downsides".
And the upsides were very good, for they included low inflation, enhanced competitiveness and lower interest rates. All the downsides, however, were couched in terms of the circumstances of the establishment of a single currency. This was summed up in a question by the Liberal Democrat Malcolm Bruce. If, therefore, the circumstances were right, would the Chancellor be in favour of a single currency? The answer (which caused a tiny spasm to pass across the PM's countenance) was yes.
No wonder the benches behind Mr Clarke seethed. Half of them actively believe that there is a German conspiracy to dominate Europe, and that the single currency is the Nineties version of the V2. In their own minds they are fighting a battle very nearly as important as that which their fathers - the Captain Mainwarings and Private Pikes - fought 50 years ago. Mr Clarke's predecessor, Norman Lamont, angrily quoted Bundesbank officials as saying that a single currency must lead to a loss of national control over tax and other fiscal policy. "Hans Tietmayer does not speak for Germany," said Mr Clarke. "And you don't speak for us!" a Tory shouted back.
Sir Peter Tapsell did speak for them, however, when he took Ken to task for not realising that a single currency was "part of a bureaucratic, centralising, socialising, federal state". Many puzzled over the socialising, since outside the Calvinist Church socialising is not considered to be a sin. But we knew what he meant.
Meanwhile, Bill Cash tried vainly to intervene. Every time he stood he did up the button on his jacket, and every time he sat down - thwarted - he undid it again. It was a metaphor for futility; like the stone of Sisyphus, that button seemed destined never to attain resolution. When, finally, the Chancellor allowed the button's owner to make his point, one almost expected Mr Cash to unzip his trousers by way of celebration.
And what emerges from all this? Why do I leave off my usual facetiousness to argue that this exchange was so important? Because Mr Clarke told the Tories that, if things go the way he wants them to, he will be pushing to join a single currency. And that is exactly what they cannot stand. Now, both sides would rather see a Labour government than relent. The Europhobes then get their chance to run the party, and Ken Clarke will see his policy carried through. By Gordon Brown.Reuse content