Leading article: For today, the Westminster drama is a side-show

These elections are about much more than the future of Gordon Brown
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The Independent Online

Today's European and local elections take place against the background of a Prime Minister fighting for his political life and the continuing saga of MPs' expenses. This extraordinary drama has swept aside much consideration of what the elections are supposed to be about, the future of the European Union and the performance of local councils.

Inevitably, the outcome will become part of the Westminster drama, too, as the results are announced over the next few days. But the elections are important irrespective of their impact on the immediate future of a precarious Prime Minister. Britain's involvement in the European Union is no minor matter. It is central to a wide range of pivotal policy areas, from the economy to the environment.

Voters often complain about a lack of choice in elections. They cannot make that complaint in relation to Europe. Depressingly, the Conservative leadership is now more euro-sceptic than at any time since Britain joined the EU in 1973. David Cameron's pledge to withdraw from the European People's Party, the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, has left him in the absurd and dangerous position of seeking alliances with small right-wing groups. Some of his new allies espouse extreme views on homosexuality, Europe and global warming. Moderates in the EPP have expressed their disapproval of Mr Cameron's actions. French and German centre-right leaders are dismayed.

Almost as alarming is Mr Cameron's proposal to challenge elements of the Lisbon Treaty even after ratification. If he becomes Prime Minister, it seems that Britain would be heading for another period of destructive rows with the rest of Europe at a point when constructive engagement is more urgent than ever. Despite his own, and his shadow cabinet's defiant euro-scepticism, however, Ukip still looks likely to do well with its even more impractical and calamitous proposal to withdraw from the EU altogether. Neither deserves support in today's elections.

The rise in euro-scepticism follows more than a decade of Labour government which began with Tony Blair declaring that his historic objective was to end Britain's ambiguous relationship with Europe. Relations, though, are as ambiguous as ever, highlighting the Government's subsequent timidity. At times ministers have been constructively and energetically engaged, not least during the collapse of the financial markets last year. But far too often, Mr Brown and others have displayed an expedient surliness towards Europe, reinforcing voters' doubts instead of challenging them. They are partly culpable for the increase in popular hostility.

Only the Liberal Democrats have consistently put the case for Europe, doing so even when seeking to hold seats in parts of the country, such as the south-west of England, that are more euro-sceptic than others. Like his recent predecessors, Nick Clegg is unequivocal in his support for the EU. A strong vote for his party would show that parts of the electorate recognise the importance of Britain playing a positive role at the heart of Europe. On that basis alone the Liberal Democrats deserve to perform well.

The local elections matter too. In ways that are too often overlooked, the performance of local authorities has an impact on all our lives. It is to be hoped that votes will be cast partly on the basis of whether or not the ruling parties have been effective. The national political mood may be febrile, but today's elections are about much more than the fate of Gordon Brown.

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