The Euro-sceptics' friend - for now

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The Independent Online
Yesterday was a momentous day for John Major and, perhaps, for the Conservative Party. He is whipping up a tempest which most of us think he lacks the magic to quell and which could, in time, engulf him.

The Prime Minister may think that he has produced a clever compromise between real confrontation and a patriotic warning gesture. He has tried to calibrate his response, rejecting in private the most disruptive option, the so-called "empty chair" boycott of business used by de Gaulle in 1965-66, and also discarding the illegal option of withholding EU payments.

By working through the European Court of Justice he is leaning on an institution many of his colleagues would like to undermine.

Pro-European ministers, notably the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, will have been comforting themselves with such thoughts.

One can almost hear them: "It could have been worse. It's rough stuff, but there's bluff mixed with the rough. After weeks of baying from the real anti-Europeans, we had to give some ground."

What such calculations leave out is the surrounding political dynamic. So far as a large section of the Conservative Party and the Tory press are concerned, John Major has just cried "war".

There will be early skirmishes in that diplomatic war which will be undistinguished and unimportant - a directive on insolvency postponed here, a delay in the Europol plan there. The first real crunch will come at the Florence summit in a month's time; if Britain in effect destroys that, then we are all set for a full-scale confrontation - and then, in due course, a Union Jack election.

For as long as these hostilities continue, Mr Major has made himself the de facto spokesman of the Tory Euro-sceptics. They will regard him with some suspicion. To them, the Prime Minister is half-leader, half- prisoner, and likely at any moment to rat.

If he does, they'll have him. But the greater danger for Britain is that he won't. The sheer, exhilarating momentum of the anti-European campaign in Britain is now likely to carry the Prime Minister even further. He may be in control of himself. But he is not in control of either his party or of the political agenda.

Having summoned, however half-heartedly, the dogs of war, it is a little difficult for him to change his mind and ask them politely to return to the kennel.

So from now on, the pressure to act and speak in an ever more jingoistic way for party political reasons will feel all-but- irresistible. Conservative pro- Europeans who claim that things aren't so bad should look at themselves in the mirror and admit as much. Whenever it comes, it's going to be an historic and bitter election.