European Elections: Smith's death delays PM's agony

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Indy Politics
THE last European elections began to go wrong for the Tories almost before they had started. The advertising, with its opaquely Europhobe slogans like the notorious 'Diet of Brussels', was awful. The candidates, by contrast, and to the irritation of the Prime Minister, were mainly, in her view, 'federalist'.

Finally, as Baroness Thatcher records in her memoirs, 'people had treated the European elections rather as they would a by-election, voting not to effect real changes in their lives but to make a protest against the sitting government.' The last point must strike an especially ominous chord with John Major. The European Parliament matters more, and has more power than it did in 1989. At the same time, a recent MORI poll for The European shows that 68 per cent of British voters are against a federal Europe. If the elections were to be fought on European issues, the Tories might hope, by a campaign depicting the opposition parties as more centralising than they are, to regain some of the 13 seats lost in 1989. But it isn't like that. Most serious politicians expect the electorate to use the elections as a protest against Mr Major's government.

The picture is neverthless more complicated than it was a fortnight ago. John Smith's death has altered the dynamic of the coming elections in several ways. At least one Tory tactic - that of personalised attacks on Smith - will have to be revised.

A good deal was to have been said about Smith's act of signing the Euro-socialist manifesto in Brussels last November, calling for cuts in working hours to create jobs and the effective abolition of member-states' power of veto. The Labour Party's manifesto today will distance itself from the European Parliament Socialist group by making clear that it does not support compulsory shorter working time and that it would retain the veto in budgetary, defence and foreign policy decisions. With Smith's passing, this issue will cut little ice for the Tories.

But, in a roundabout way, the Labour leader's untimely death could help John Major. Originally, the spotlight was always going to be on the Tories. There was a prevalent assumption that Mr Major's leadership would come under swift, and perhaps, terminal attack once the results started to clarify in the few days after 9 June. Every Tory utterance, particularly those of Mr Major's potential successors, would be scrutinised for the slightest difference in nuance between them. The topics at issue would have been European, not because these are European elections but because Europe is the subject which still threatens to divide the Tory party.

That will still be so, but now the media spotlight will swing, perhaps equally, between the Tory campaign and Labour's. Last week the Shadow Cabinet bravely decided that no potential leadership candidate can declare that he or she is standing until after 9 June. There were practical reasons for this - not least that if they were allowed to do so there would be pressure for each to be given equal billing in the Euro-campaign, an administratively nightmarish prospect.

But even supposing that the potential contenders exercise superhuman restraint in not using the Euro-campaign to stake out their positions for a future leadership contest, they are almost bound to be interpreted as doing so. Whether the party likes it or not, the Labour leadership has become the most interesting show in town. If none of the possible contenders drop out, the prospect of a messily coded sub-debate within the party becomes even greater.

As a result, there is now less immediate pressure on Mr Major himself. George Gardiner's menacing weekend criticisms from the Tory backbench right of Mr Major, and his call for leadership 'of a very high order', are a reminder that the pressure is still there. But the Prime Minister decided over three weeks ago, according to close colleagues, to remain as leader whatever turbulence was caused by the grim defeats for his party confidently expected on 9 June. That alone makes it less likely that the detabilising round-robin from 34 Tory MPs required to trigger a leadership contest will be sent immediately after the elections. The undesirability of distracting from possible divisions within Labour makes it still less so.

In these circumstances Douglas Hurd, the motor of the manifesto and the party's campaigning themes, has reason to hope that his fellow ministers will not deliberately seek to sabotage unity during the campaign. The risk is still there - for example, from ministers whose mouths are connected with especial directness to their brains, and sharply differing views on such subjects as the single currency, like Michael Portillo, and for that matter Kenneth Clarke. But Mr Hurd's skill in crafting a position for the Tories which combines a positive approach to the EU with emphasis on a decentralised, 'multi-speed' Europe will help to secure a measure of the unity.

None of that means, however, that the outcome of the elections will help Mr Major in the longer term. The local election results were calamitous for the Tories, even though disgruntled Tory supporters had the incentive to turn out to preserve well-run and popular Conservative councils. No such incentive will exist on 9 June.

Tonight, after manifesto launches by all the main parties, Mr Major will travel to the South-West for the first of his regional rallies; sensibly so.

A run of successes in that region by the Liberal Democrats - who are privately hoping to win several more seats than the two they are owning up to - will inspire real fears of a Tory collapse there in the next general election. In so far as European issues do count, Paddy Ashdown's pledge to secure 'popular assent' to 1996 decisions on the future shape of the EU will strike a chord with disenchanted Tories.

An October conference coronation of a popular young Labour leader would concentrate the minds of Tory backbenchers already restive about Mr Major's leadership. The Conservative conference a week later can scarcely offer the same kind of excitement, and the Tory leadership election season follows all too swiftly. It was only in retrospect that the Tory defeats of 1989 were seen to have begun the slide for Lady Thatcher. June will probably not be crisis month for Mr Major. November still could be.

(Photograph omitted)

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