Steve Richards: A campaign with a winning message - and a complete lack of self-confidence

In theory, this should be the time for pro-Europeans to win a referendum in Britain
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The Eurosceptics in Britain are buoyant. Every possible scenario appears to work in their favour. If the French vote against the European constitution in the referendum at the end of the month, the project is almost certainly doomed. If there is a "Yes" vote in France, there will be a referendum in Britain - in which case, the Eurosceptics enjoy the prospect of a double whammy. They defeat the constitution and humiliate Tony Blair.

The Eurosceptics in Britain are buoyant. Every possible scenario appears to work in their favour. If the French vote against the European constitution in the referendum at the end of the month, the project is almost certainly doomed. If there is a "Yes" vote in France, there will be a referendum in Britain - in which case, the Eurosceptics enjoy the prospect of a double whammy. They defeat the constitution and humiliate Tony Blair.

Not surprisingly, some of those in Britain who oppose the constitution launched the "No" campaign yesterday even before the French had declared. In reality, it was a relaunch of a relaunch, but in the anti-European British media such trivialities are swept to one side. The event was treated as a significant development.

Not so long ago, the No campaign was known as Vote 2004 as it campaigned for a referendum on the European constitution. The same organisation became Vote No - The Campaign Against the European Constitution. Now, with trumpets blaring again, it is known as No - The Campaign Against The European Constitution.

But they make an odd sound. On the website of the No campaign are photos of attractive young men and women, while the names of Labour MPs, trade unionists and senior Green Party members are highlighted. It is like reading the brochure for a progressives' paradise. There is not a Tory or a UKIP member in sight. This is clever, but misleading, and a sign of the hidden tensions in the No campaign.

If there is a referendum, of course the Conservatives will play a big part. A lot of them feel passionately about the issue and are not going to book a holiday during a campaign. What the Conservatives will be saying, though, is far from clear. There are at least three positions advocated within its senior ranks.

Michael Howard has argued that Britain should stay in the EU but renegotiate all the existing treaties. I am told the civil servants who were assigned the task of preparing policy papers in the event of a Conservative government had particular problems with this brief. The policy fell apart as they sought to draft a credible paper. No other EU country supported sweeping renegotiations, and it was not entirely clear what Mr Howard would be negotiating for.

Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor until the election, has spoken more precisely of Britain being on the outer circle of the EU, presumably perched precariously with some of the smaller countries. If Britain had a more powerful pro-European media, such a vision would be dismissed as a terrible national humiliation. More immediately, it is not clear how such an objective would be realised - staying in the EU, but not quite in it.

There is a more coherent policy being argued within the Conservatives. Its main advocate is the senior MP Bill Cash. He wants Britain to withdraw from the EU and acquire an associate membership in which it functions in the single market without any of the responsibilities and benefits of full membership.

Mr Cash is obsessed by Europe. He speaks and thinks of little else. This means that he is not taken as seriously as he should be. Mrs Thatcher might have carried the Maastricht Treaty in her handbag. Mr Cash can probably recite the European constitution by heart. He offers a genuine alternative, but one that polls suggest is unpopular. Most voters do not want to pull out of the EU. Then there is the UKIP position - close to that of Mr Cash - of pulling out altogether, but with no euphemisms about "associate membership".

Right-wingers oppose the treaty partly because they fear the social model advanced in France and Germany. Some left-wingers are against the treaty on the basis that it is an obstacle to social policies implemented in France and Germany.

In the meantime, there are unanswered questions. Will the leading Conservatives who oppose the treaty but favour staying in the EU share platforms with UKIP and others opposed to continuing membership? Will the Tories explain more realistically how they propose to remain in the EU while opposing all that is happening within it?

The soaring self-confidence of those who oppose the European constitution is wildly at odds with the incoherence of their message. The No campaign should be in turmoil, but it is gatherings of pro-Europeans that tend to have a funereal air. I have attended conferences where participants have almost apologised for existing before modestly putting the case for the EU (the pro-Europeans are so bloody polite and decent, which is why the BBC is much more frightened of the Eurosceptics). It is in such a bleak context that there is probably a part of Tony Blair that hopes for a "no" vote in France at the end of the month.

But I doubt if it is a big part of Mr Blair. A negative outcome in France will mean an almighty crisis in the European Union when Britain assumes the presidency for the second half of the year. Mr Blair would have to take the lead in putting the pieces back together again. As he attempted to do so, the future of Europe would once more become a raging debate in Britain. It would be more straightforward to have the focus of a referendum.

In theory, this should be the time for pro-Europeans to win such a referendum in Britain. The enlargement of the European Union changes the dynamics in Britain's favour. Indeed, most of the arguments applied against Europe refer to the Maastricht Treaty that John Major signed in 1991, rather than the revised constitution, a treaty of less significance. The Maastricht Treaty marked the high point of Franco-German co-operation and their joint vision of a more deeply integrated Europe. During the Commons' debates on Maastricht, Tory MPs stated passionately: "We do not want more integration. Our priority is enlargement."

Now they have got what they wanted, they explode with more rage. Enlargement makes deeper integration much less likely. It challenges the old dominance of France and Germany. At such a moment, it would be perverse for Britain to turn away or celebrate the near collapse of the European Union.

Senior government insiders tell me that, in spite of recent polls, they expect France to vote "yes". Even if Holland votes "no" - which they also expect - they will proceed with the referendum in Britain. No one in the British government knows for sure what would happen in the event of a "no" in France. Mr Blair is planning a national "yes" campaign that includes pro-European Tories. In Downing Street, they discussed the option of making it a campaign of "progressives", seeking to unite the majority of voters that supported Labour or the Liberal Democrats. They have opted instead for a bigger tent.

At the moment, it is a tent crammed with advocates of a winningly coherent message and a complete lack of self-confidence.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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