Prodigal's return disguises lack of any new thinking

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Europe has nearly destroyed the Major administration. Could it end up saving it? After a day of speechifying and fringe-meeting agitation on the future of the European Union, the party feels more united than last year, and united on terms summed up in the title of a lunchtime speech by Norman Lamont: "We are all Euro-sceptics now."

The argument is declared over, at least in the party. After John Major's leadership challenge, the hard-liners aren't going to push for more concessions from him. But most pro-Maastricht and pro-single currency Tories have been intimidated or argued into silence. Only the indomitable Edwina Currie won't shut up; she has left it late, but she is in danger of becoming admirable.

Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo were, though, surer guides to the Tory mood. They both made fervently anti-Brussels points in their speeches, with the Foreign Secretary deriding the notion of "ever closer union" to which the Prime Minister had, after all, committed himself when he signed the Maastricht treaty.

As for Portillo ... grown newspapermen were slack-jawed and white-faced at the sheer gung-ho relish with which he took on the factual world and defeated it with overwhelming verbal force. "We taught the Bosnian Serb generals that the slaughter of civilians will not go unpunished." Er, up to a point, and rather late. "Around the world, three letters send a chill down the spine of the enemy: SAS. And those letters spell out one clear message: don't mess with Britain."

And so on. After 20 minutes or so of this, one could only react to his assertion that "war is messy, brutal and violent" by reflecting that, yes, it was; but no more so than Portillo on rip-roaring conference form.

John Major seemed to be enjoying it about as much as a dose of dysentery. But Portillo, after wobbling during the summer leadership contest, is back in favour with the party. He is the Prodigal Minister.

This matters for the country, not just the Tory party, because ferocious attacks on Labour's federal tendencies are so clearly going to be a central theme in the election. Once party battle has been joined, Europe will become a unifying thing for most Tories, rather than a dividing thing. "Brussels" seems to stand for everything party workers are viscerally against. It is becoming as important a Conservative enemy as socialism used to be.

And the British argument is moving their way. Even at the Labour conference last week the missing words in every relevant speech were "monetary union". The single currency had simply disappeared. Tony Blair believes that monetary union will happen, if it does, late and will be driven by economic convergence and market interests, rather than the Maastricht timetable. Indeed, he thinks the political timetable is the problem. Anti-Maastricht Tories have some reason to feel self-satisfied.

None of which means that they have a convincing answer to the European conundrum. A small minority want to leave the EU. A smaller minority still want full federalism. But most are stuck uneasily between, anxious about the Franco-German agenda, short of clear alternatives. There is "variable geometry" and other unsatisfactory verbiage.

But what was missing again yesterday was any sign of new thinking about what end-point would be good for the country and for Europe.

Rifkind's speech assumed that European policy was essentially about reacting to other people's proposals: "In each case, we will decide whether there would be such benefit ... that it would justify the loss of national control." Sensible, no doubt; but uncomfortably close to being a declaration in favour of good things, and against bad things.

Where Rifkind was interesting was in his sketchy proposal for a free trade area linking the EU and North America. This is not new and would have to be argued slowly through the EU. But if it eventually succeeded, senior Tories point out that it would raise interesting questions about harmonisation and all the other "baggage" of the Single European Act. It could, in other words, provide a reverse gear for European integration. Watch that idea.

It is perhaps over-ambitious to expect a party in government, still trying to close destructive splits, to come up with a blueprint either for a different kind of Union or for some looser confederation. That may be the great task of the Tories in opposition. Meanwhile, they will be doing their best to avoid that fate by attacking Labour as unpatriotic and slavish adherents of the bureaucratic socialist empire in Brussels.

This may be unfair, untrue, short-termist and an avoidance of the hard questions. But the Conservatives are starting to sound almost consensual in their Euro-scepticism. They have convinced themselves that on this issue, if no other, the tide of history is flowing in their favour.