Steve Richards: Europe still has the power to shape British politics, even if the public has lost interest

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The Independent Online

Europe is back. The treaty that surfaced from the wreckage of the EU constitution held centre stage in the Commons yesterday and will do so for weeks to come.

The debates matter on many different levels. Never underestimate Europe's capacity to shape and then re-shape British politics. The falls of Margaret Thatcher and John Major were brought about by Europe. The near-fatal schism in the Labour Party in the 1980s can be traced back to divisions over Europe.

Some of the more explosive rows between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown related to Europe and, even now, there is a story to tell about their fluctuating, rootless calculations on the issue. The story of Britain's relationship with Europe is unresolved. Until resolution is achieved, there will be more trouble to come.

A brief return to the mid- 1990s illustrates the zany nature of the debate now. During the Maastricht debates in the House of Commons, Eurosceptic Tories stood up to declare that the Maastricht treaty would be a disaster. They did not want Britain to be part of a single currency. They warned about the dominance of the Franco-German alliance. Instead, they declared angrily that they sought an enlarged European Union, one in which Britain stayed out of the euro but was still part of the EU.

The Eurosceptics from that era have won. They should be cheering over the next few weeks as legislation is passed to ratify a treaty aimed at making a hugely enlarged EU work efficiently. At the same time, Britain remains out of the euro with no sign whatever that it will join, even though the single currency and some of the countries in the eurozone are performing more strongly in the current febrile situation than the pound.

The latest treaty is the consequence of the enlarged union that the Eurosceptics called for. As an added bonus for the sceptics, Franco-German dominance becomes impossible in an enlarged union. There is no space any longer for two countries to pull all the strings alone.

But, instead of raising a glass and toasting developments, the Conservatives are in a state again. Indeed, they are in more of a state now than they were then, or at least more of them are in a state. In the mid-1990s, the likes of Clarke, Heseltine and a few others provided a counter to the fanatics. Now the fanatics reign unchallenged. David Cameron is a leader who appears to have flexible beliefs on a range of issues but his Euroscepticism is firmly grounded. Almost without exception, the Shadow Cabinet is deeply Eurosceptic.

As for the parliamentary party, John Redwood once told me that members of its most recent intake admonish him for not being hostile enough in his opposition to Europe. If you take a look at Mr Redwood's blog, which is punctuated by an intense Euroscepticism, you will realise what such admonishments tells us about some of his colleagues.

From their perspective, everything is a threat again. It does not matter that their fears in the 1990s have not been realised. In their eyes, on every front the British parliament will be rendered virtually powerless if this treaty is ratified. They made the same apocalyptic predictions not only about Maastricht, but also about the Treaty of Amsterdam before the 1997 election.

During his doomed election campaign, Mr Major had to plead with them in public at a weird press conference: "Please don't tie my hands in advance of the summit". In the event, Mr Blair won the election, went to the summit, was photographed cycling with the other leaders, signed the treaty and the world did not fall apart.

Yet early yesterday evening, the Conservative benches were packed once more, more crowded than normal as MPs queued up to purge their fearful fury again. Far more of them attended the debate than turned up for Alistair Darling's statement on Northern Rock. Mr Redwood intervened within seconds of the debate starting. Peter Lilley was next up. Mr Cameron and George Osborne sat on either side of William Hague as the shadow Foreign Secretary spoke.

A lot of Conservative MPs remain obsessed with the issue, never reassured even when they win more often than not in the rows over Britain's relationship with Europe. It is the pro-Europeans who have far more cause to be depressed. But the permanent neurotic restlessness of the Eurosceptics suggests that most of them deep down, and in some cases not so deep down, would prefer to be out of the EU altogether.

It is their fantasy of tiny Britain struggling on outside Europe that places them at odds with the voters who normally dance to their sceptical tunes. The intensity of their hostility for any other route is the reason why the Conservatives have more to lose over the debates in the coming weeks than a government that struggles with its own tamely cautious approach.

In his early years as leader, Cameron successfully made the Conservatives seem less "nasty". Now they need to be credible. Yet on Europe they cannot say whether they would offer a referendum on the treaty if it has been ratified and they win the next election. They cannot do so because the party is divided over whether to propose such a drastic move.

Mr Cameron and Mr Hague deploy unconvincing phrases to plaster over the cracks, as Labour did over several policy areas in the 1980s. Their line is that "we won't let the matter rest" if the treaty is ratified without a referendum. This is almost comically vague.

The early exchanges in the Commons last night were deceptive. Those calling for a referendum were rampant. They know that Labour will not hold one because it would lose. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, could not make such an admission, nor did he confess what is painfully obvious, that Mr Blair should never have offered a referendum on the constitution in the first place.

This is an obvious embarrassment for the Government and, at times during the never-ending interventions during his speech, Mr Miliband looked embarrassed. But he was far stronger as his speech developed, pointing out that the Tories claim to want to make the EU work, and yet oppose every attempt to do so.

There is a curious dynamic about the politics of Europe. Although every poll suggests that voters are Eurosceptic, parties that adopt such a stance do not perform well at elections. Labour was slaughtered in 1983 on a platform that included withdrawal from Europe. The Conservatives did almost as badly in 2001 when they warned that there were only days to save the pound. Even though they are now more or less united as a Eurosceptic party, the Tories are still split over the implications of their hostility and how best to express it.

Keep an eye on these debates. Britain is weakly semi-detached, but Europe continues to play its part in shaping the fate of its political parties and their leaders.