A stroke of luck from across the Channel

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It is a great event in British politics, this decision of old Jacques Delors not to try to lead his people. One of the last of the federal giants is sheathing his sword, leaving the French presidential palace to a more conservative and cautious f igure. Vision is retiring, to cultivate its garden and write long sentences, in a classically French fashion.

Because of this, some of the poisoned passion may now drain out of the pre-1996 arguments dividing the Conservative Party. The chance of a compromising, unfederal outcome to the 1996 conference is higher than ever before. This is good news for John Majorand, with economic growth, gives the Conservatives a reason to hope that political recovery is possible, even from the icy quagmire of this winter.

Before looking at that, though, it's worth pondering a little more on the behaviour of Delors, perhaps the closest non-German ally of Chancellor Kohl and a fit foe for Margaret Thatcher in her prime (a politician whom, interestingly, Delors hugely admires for her courage and intellect).

As French president, Delors would have been in an outwardly strong, history-making position. He would have tried to team up with Kohl for a final integrationist push, completing the grand project of Union to which they had committed themselves as youngerpoliticians.

Now that won't happen. Why? To quit while you are ahead in the opinion polls is unusual behaviour from a politician, and Delors confessed to some regret about it. But it was the behaviour of an intellectual and a realist. Speaking privately recently, Delors seemed deeply worried by the collapse of the French Socialist Party, not merely at the ballot box, but in terms of ideology.

What was the party for? How could one govern without either parliamentary support or a vigorous tide of ideas moving one's way? It was more important to think through the problems ahead than to get elected. As he put it at the weekend: "I am not cut out to be a do-nothing king.''

He saw, in other words, that his way of doing things was in retreat. Whatever the excuses about his age, other interests and so on, his announce-ment was both wise and genuinely symbolic. It showed that he understood. Overshadowed by the dying president,there is a melancholy about French politics at the moment, a sense that an era is ending. Delors has decided not to try to prolong it.

None of this means that the British Conservative problems are over ahead of 1996. It would be stupid to assert that France is now likely to take a British line on the European Union in future, or that the country will soon be in the hands of the French equivalents of Bill Cash and Teddy Taylor.

The powerful French orthodoxy about a single currency and the need to bind in the Germans is untouched by Delors' decision.

Alain Lamassoure, the French European Minister, said recently that "we are in agreement with Bonn: as soon as we have a European monetary authority, it will be necessary to have a political authority''. British ministers have no clue about how they wouldrespond.

But the French conservatives are by definition nearer the British pos-ition in their instincts and priorities. If the EU focuses more on defence and foreign policy, these are subjects that London and Paris will find easier and on which they will exert more influence. Edouard Balladur, the French prime minister, expected to declare himself a presidential runner next month, is seen by London as just the kind of pragmatic, tactical politician it can do business with.

Even the harder-edged and more traditional Jacques Chirac would be much easier for Major to deal with than Delors. Whatever the realities of the 1996 negotiation, the mere existence of a Kohl-Delors axis would have fomented hysteria among the Tory nationalist press and activists. The Major government would have drifted into ever more populist, rejectionist positions. Its principled Europeans would have been in an appallingly difficult situation.

We have witnessed, in short, the first stroke of luck this most unlucky government has had for ages. And it comes at an important moment. Ministers from both wings of the European argument have reached the conclusion that they and their supporters are close to destroying the Conservatives as a ruling party.

But whether the Tories are capable of pulling themselves together and exploiting their luck remains to be seen. The mutual hatreds have gone deep. Like scabby wounds, these animosities itch all the time and many Tories can't help scratching. There will be plenty of opportunities for reopening them; the single currency issue will throw up many such over the next few years.

The most topical example of the problem is the referendum. This is hardly an imminent issue or, for most Tories, an issue of principle. (It is a luscious irony that it is the most extreme partisans of old-fashioned parliamentary sovereignty who have become the most eloquent advocates of the unparliamentary technique of a plebiscite.)

Yet they just can't help themselves. Ministers have been laying into one another, making dark accusations of bad faith, trying to push the Prime Minister this way or that. Scratch, scratch, scratch. You get the impression that if it wasn't the referendum, they'd quickly find something else to fight about.

Nor, raising one's sights from the continuing squabble, can one see much hope for a popular Conservative European policy emerging from 1996. If politicians are not prepared to advocate and fight for a European Union (as Delors was, for all his faults) then they cannot assume some vaguer, more complex policy will command wide assent either.

Maastricht is still seen by the Prime Minister as a worthwhile blocking operation, which frustrated a further lurch to real European union. His hope that the 1996 treaty will mark a change of direction, with the ratchet turning back to the nation-state, looks more realistic than before. But neither he nor anyone else in government has come up with a rival vision which has a hope of commanding political loyalty.

The very phrases thrown up by those who want to compromise between federalism and nationalism betray the problem - who's going to get out of bed to vote for variable geometry?

There remains a great political gap between the bureaucratic federalism of Delors - which has reached its high point and is now in retreat - and the nationalism it was designed to replace. The gap is not filled by the private web of intergovernmental haggling currently favoured by the Foreign Office. All Europe stands in need of a more generous and dem-ocratic model of how Europeans and their governments can work better together.

But can this government produce it? (Is the Pope a Presbyterian, I hear you asking. Do bears brush their teeth in the woods?) No, they can only do what they can do, which is to hang on, hang together and hope that the rest of us forget these years of recession and drift.

In the short term, things are going to look better for them. But even the grand retreat of Jacques Delors cannot answer their deeper troubles. If Conservatives now have nothing to fear but Conservatives themselves, that remains, in truth, a pretty formidable obstacle.