Tories in Turmoil: Oskar is far more of a worry than William

HAROLD WILSON'S well worn remark that a week is a long time in politics has been thoroughly vindicated once again.

At the start of this one, Tony Blair was facing the prospect of a backlash in his own party against a decidedly dodgy-looking secret deal with a Tory arch toff, Lord Cranborne, to preserve at least an element of the hereditary peerage unless and until the government gets round to introducing an elected second chamber. At the end of it William Hague shows every sign of having snatched a leadership crisis from the jaws of what might have been credibly presented as a Tory triumph, brilliantly achieved against almost impossible parliamentary odds.

By not swallowing his pride and gratefully accepting Lord Cranborne's deal - however imperiously negotiated behind his back - Mr Hague has ended up with the peers in revolt and almost certainly the same outcome as if he had taken Lord Cranborne's advice in the first place. If your position isn't all that strong, it doesn't make much sense to behave as if it was. It was Lord Cranborne who had the troops in the Lords, not Mr Hague. So it's not that surprising that Mr Blair was allowing himself just a passing gloat in St Malo yesterday.

Nevertheless, talk of a Tory leadership challenge may be, to put mildly, just a little premature. True, there will be no shortage of MPs who wonder deep down whether it wouldn't have been better to elect a truly dangerous politician like Kenneth Clarke in the first place. But it's sometimes forgotten that leading the Conservative Party isn't necessarily the most appealing job in the world at the moment.

Mr Clarke, if Tory MPs could overcome the Europhobia which appears to be their one common characteristic at present, might be willing. But if you were Francis Maude - or even Michael Portillo - you might just calculate that it would be better to go for the job after, rather than before, a general election which most Tories expect to lose.

And that's apart from two other important points: one is that the new system makes it quite difficult to dislodge a Tory leader and secondly that Mr Hague may well have some modest but unmistakable electoral successes to his name - in the European Parliament and local councils, by this time next year.

In any case Mr Blair won't - and shouldn't - gloat for too long. For though it is taking some Labour politicians, still mesmerised by 18 grinding years in opposition, quite a long time to realise it, the Tories are not, and haven't been for some time, their main problem.

One day they will be again, though whether this will come to pass under Mr Hague's leadership is a little less probable than it was. But the tough business of government does not necessarily get less tough just because the main Opposition party seems to be visibly disintegrating before your eyes. The early years of Margaret Thatcher's administration, at the beginning of the Eighties, were no less traumatic for the Conservatives because the Labour Party spent most of the period coming up with ever more novel ways of making itself unelectable.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem to say so, this has actually been rather a difficult week for the government.

Because Mr Blair is, supremely, a politician who understands the big picture, it's a safe bet that he will have spent rather more time this week thinking about Oskar Lafontaine than he has about William Hague. And he's right to have done so.

The German Finance Minister, by loudly proclaiming this week what he sees as the need to remove obstacles, including the British veto, to harmonisation of taxes in the EU, has sharpened the focus on what remains the central dilemma likely to face the Government during 1999: what to do about Europe, in general, and EMU, in particular.

What Mr Lafontaine has done is to call into question what was beginning to look like Mr Blair's strategy of edging, albeit slowly and imperceptibly, towards EMU, allowing a consensus slowly to build up without deliberately picking a fight with the Eurosceptic press by doing too much to stimulate it.

The outlines of all this are well known: as Britons became increasingly used to the euro as traders, tourists, and perhaps employees they would feel less and less threatened it and - hey presto! - suddenly a referendum would look quite easily winnable.

Mr Lafontaine has now made this quite a lot more difficult to sustain as a strategy, not least because he has become the new hate figure for the Eurosceptic press.

There are answers to what Mr Lafontaine is saying, though they involve being a little more grown up than pro-Europeans have so far been in admitting that joining EMU will inevitably have at least some effects which go beyond exclusively monetary policy.

One answer is that Britain is not the only country in the EU which will be reluctant to turn away inward investment by raising business taxes. Another is that if Britain really wants to influence the general direction of economic policy in Europe - and it surely does - towards flexible labour markets and all the other goals that Mr Blair and Gordon Brown want, then it will have much more chance of doing so inside than outside EMU.

But that would almost certainly mean the British Prime Minister being more up front about the virtues of Britain's membership of EMU than he has so far - perhaps even firmly announcing, sometime in the next twelve months, that Britain intends to join.

There are no cost free options, of course. It means taking on the Eurosceptic press. But if he doesn't, Mr Lafontaine may be the politician who dominates the British Euro-debate between now and the election - with the chances of winning an EMU referendum diminishing as a result.

Which may be the real, long term, meaning of this week's Tory crisis.

The less effective the one truly Eurosceptic party in British politics becomes, the easier it is to ignore it. What has changed this week is that it looks just that bit more difficult to postpone a decision.

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home