The jury is still out on Smith's charges

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The Independent Online
GEORGE CARMAN would have been proud of John Smith. Without anything very useful to say about the Government's policies on either the ERM or Europe, Mr Smith sensibly opted for lawyerly ridicule. Unless it is Mr Carman, nobody does this sort of knockabout better than Mr Smith. Needing only to quote the Prime Minister's and the Chancellor's words back at them, Mr Smith had little difficulty in demonstrating the magnitude of the defeat that the Government has suffered.

But although Mr Smith demonstrated that he will be a far more formidable opponent for the Prime Minister than Neil Kinnock was, he did not have the ammunition to deliver anything approaching a mortal blow.

He could not overcome the problem that his own identification with the ERM is at least as great as Mr Major's. As Shadow Chancellor, Mr Smith became a determined advocate of ERM entry for three reasons: it was convincing evidence of Labour's conversion to Europe, which was itself a symbol of modernisation; it gave him cover against the inevitable Tory charge that Labour would be soft on inflation; it was a stick with which to beat Margaret Thatcher and point up divisions within the Government.

He even supported the rate at which sterling had entered the mechanism, aware that to do otherwise would saddle Labour with the blame for any possible future devaluation. In his heart of hearts Mr Smith must have known that a Labour government would also have been crushed by the forces that pushed the pound out of the ERM last week, only probably a good deal sooner.

But if the Prime Minister was fortunate to have Mr Smith facing him, he must have felt far from comfortable under the gaze of some of those on the benches behind him. Yet to his credit, he gave the anti-European hardliners in his party virtually nothing. Leaving the ERM was not a blessing in disguise - it had been a success for Britain and he still believed that, in principle, co- operative arrangements were superior to a stand-alone monetary policy. If the ERM can be satisfactorily put back together, and it is quite a big 'if', the Prime Minister's instinct will be to return after some decent

interval.

On Maastricht, the Prime Minister's determination was undiminished. A properly fleshed-out principle of subsidiarity is now deemed to be essential before the Bill ratifying the treaty will be brought back to Westminster. But when he spoke more generally of his commitment to our European future, Mr Major struck a note of authentic passion which few would once have thought him capable of. His contempt for the anti- Europeans, who would have Britain 'a sour and isolated country', has, if anything, grown.

The key to the Prime Minister's political rehabilitation will lie in his ability to appear again as the master rather than the victim of events. Having lost the pound to the speculators last week, he yesterday lost his friend David Mellor to the tabloids. He cannot now afford to see his European policy similarly overwhelmed.

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