It's a great mistake to try and forget about the euro until after the election

'Britain in Europe believes that to campaign for the euro now would play into the hands of Mr Hague'
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The Independent Online

The embryonic campaign to take Britain into the single currency is about to be put into deep-freeze until after the general election. The Britain In Europe group will effectively put its attempt to persuade the public to love the euro on hold until 4 May next year.

The embryonic campaign to take Britain into the single currency is about to be put into deep-freeze until after the general election. The Britain In Europe group will effectively put its attempt to persuade the public to love the euro on hold until 4 May next year.

This tactical retreat will undoubtedly dismay some Europhiles, already frustrated that the all-party campaign has been shackled by an over-cautious Downing Street. Critics will see it as another sign of what they regard as Tony Blair's pusillanimous and defeatist approach; their understandable fear is that the British will not be persuaded to join the euro after the general election unless the case is made now. Nor will the move go down well in Brussels; Mr Blair can still punch above his weight in the EU, although his clout will dissipate if Britain continues to shun the euro much longer.

However, a broad range of Europhiles, including businessmen, cabinet ministers, Tory heavyweights Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, and Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, have reached the reluctant conclusion that to go full- throttle for the euro now would only damage their long-term prospects of success. They insist they are not running scared because of the Danish referendum, although its "No" vote has surely provided a timely warning of the dangers of being out of step with public opinion.

In the short term, Britain In Europe will continue to point out the possible benefits of euro membership when the strong pound costs jobs or when inward investment is put at risk by Britain remaining outside the eurozone. But most of its energy will be devoted to preparing for the real campaign, which will start on day one after the general election, if Labour wins a second term. The aim will be to ensure that Mr Blair finally grasps the euro nettle, and that an assessment of whether Britain has met the Government's five tests is made sooner rather than later, paving the way for a referendum about 18 months after polling day.

To campaign hard for the euro now, Britain In Europe's leaders believe, would play into the hands of William Hague, raising the value of the strongest card in his otherwise weak election pack. It could thus reduce the scale of Labour's majority, in turn making it less likely that Mr Blair would go all-out for euro membership. It could entrench public hostility to the single currency, making it deep as well as wide, and therefore near-impossible to turn round.

Britain In Europe's decision will give a short-term victory to the rival Business for Sterling group and the Tories. Within Labour's world, it will be seen as "game, set and match" to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who has always advocated just such a cautious approach this side of the election. He had to give a little ground earlier this year when the Cabinet trio of Robin Cook, Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers rebelled against him, forcing the issue of the euro's benefits on to the Government's agenda. Now Mr Brown will be happy to see them slip back into their shells.

The pro-single currency brigade know they will be accused of raising the white flag. Their mood is one of grim resignation that their big battle must be put off until another day. They feel they are swimming against a tide of events beyond their control, such as the Danish referendum, endless media coverage of the "weak" euro, and this week's hapless performance by Wim Duisenberg, president of the European Central Bank, who unwittingly helped the currency fall to a new low by suggesting that central banks would not intervene further in the markets to prop it up.

So perhaps supporters of the euro are right to recognise political reality rather than to throw money and energy at a cause that could never be won before the election, since Mr Blair was never going to put his weight fully behind it. Their stop-start campaign, which No 10 has forced them to fight mostly with one hand behind their back, is not dead but sleeping. Perhaps a pause now is the way to ensure it can be relaunched on 4 May with all guns blazing.

However, I do not share the Europhiles' analysis that shelving the campaign now will neutralise the single currency as an election issue. The Eurosceptic-dominated British newspapers and the Tories were always going to make it a key issue; that will not be altered one iota by Britain In Europe's changing-down of gear.

Labour can call as many press conferences as it likes about health and education, but that will not stop the media asking - perfectly relevant - questions about the party's intentions on the euro. What progress has been made so far in meeting the five economic tests? When is the "early" moment in the next Parliament when the assessment of the tests will be made? When would a referendum take place? What is the right value at which sterling should join the euro?

Mr Blair had a taste of such medicine during his visit to Korea yesterday. He made an uncontentious speech, which merely reiterated the Government's policy on the euro, but suddenly found that his off-the-record negative comments during his flight from London had become a big story back at home.

The other potential flaw in the Europhiles' strategy is that there is no guarantee that Mr Blair will jump quickly off the fence after the election. For one thing, it would look very odd (and politically crazy) for him to take a different view on 4 May to the one he expressed on 2 May. His heart will certainly be with the relaunched campaign, but his head may still tell him otherwise.

The key man after the election will not be Mr Blair but Mr Brown. The Europhiles calculate that he will be more likely to join their post-election crusade if they keep their heads down now. Indeed, if the previously cautious Chancellor declared the time was right to join the euro, he would have enormous weight.

I believe the Eurosceptic papers that hope Mr Brown is one of their own will be disappointed. Equally, I suspect he may not be ready to support joining the single currency in the next Parliament. The embryonic campaign to take Britain into the euro may have a very long gestation period.