Her Majesty's official Opposition is - where?

The Tories and Europe
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The Independent Online
In the House of Commons on Wednesday there were 12 questions asked of Tony Blair by Conservative MPs, five of them by the Leader of the Opposition. Every one was on Europe, and 11 of them on the perceived iniquities of the Social Chapter. This was no doubt regarded by the Tory whips' office as a triumph of the leaden orchestration that now regularly takes place in both the main parties on these occasions. Except that on that very day a clear embarrassment for the Government, perhaps the clearest since the election, had come to light: the decision, despite ministerial promises to the contrary, not to apply the ban on tobacco advertising to Formula One racing.

It seemed, on the face of it, a classic case both of promising what you couldn't deliver, and ducking a hard choice. It directly involved the Prime Minister, who had been personally lobbied by the motor-racing industry. Was it really such a triumph to ensure that not one solitary Opposition MP even tried to make him squirm on the issue?

To make it worse, nothing had happened to justify this sudden obsessive interest in the Social Chapter. Or, to put it more precisely, nothing had happened outside the Conservative Party. The Europhiles in the party who know better, and who regard the Amsterdam summit as having had an unimportant but reasonably positive outcome, have agreed to vote against the Amsterdam Treaty bill in the Commons next week. So the leadership is now seeking to demonstrate, at the expense of serious opposition to the Government, that it is back in charge of its own party. But surrender of the party's pro-Europeans on Amsterdam is tactical - and temporary. It was agreed this week by the Positive European Group of MPs, including Ken Clarke, on the grounds that it is better to save their fire for the more important battle: EMU. When that moment comes most of them, and certainly Clarke and Michael Heseltine, will vote with the Government rather than their own party.

The pro-Europeans' tactic is understandable. But it doesn't alter the symbolic importance of next week's three-line whip for the Tory leadership, and the large majority of Tory backbenchers who support it. Opposition to the treaty, if it is to be taken seriously, implies that a future Tory govern- ment would seek to alter its terms. Which happens to be in line with the long-held attachment of Michael Howard, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, to the idea of seeking to "renegotiate" Britain's membership of the EU in a way that would repatriate some powers from Brussels. In his speech at the Tory conference, Howard explicitly said: "We will not be afraid to look again at the powers exercised by Brussels." What does this mean in practice? Allies of Howard have argued, rather optimistically, that the UK would have the clout to negotiate new terms if there were a change of government. But some of them have not, in private, shrunk from the implication that it might have to be pursued under threat of withdrawal. If that threat is to mean anything, as Norman Lamont said in a ground- breaking speech two years ago, the threat might, under certain circumstances, have to be carried out.

Hague himself hasn't fully declared his hand on this. He hasn't himself yet said he would go into the next election demanding renegotiation of Amsterdam under threat of withdrawal. Some would say opposition to the treaty anyway implies that; in any case it is a mark-time treaty (at worst) that preserved intact the objectives of the previous government: border controls and the right of member states to make their own foreign policy. Opposition to it suggests a new depth of hostility to the EU as it has existed since John Major reached his deal at Maastricht.

And here there are two fundamental problems. The first is the sort of target Blair is in relation to Europe, as opposed to what the Tories will vainly try to represent him as being. If you listen to Robin Cook giving evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as he did this week, saying that Amsterdam represents an "improvement" on the integrationist designs of Maastricht; or, if you read Gordon Brown's submission to last month's ECOFIN, with its emphasis on labour market flexibility, Europe- wide competitiveness and the need for small and medium-sized businesses to prosper, it becomes harder to depict the British government as selling out to obsolete and integrationist EU corporatism. Indeed his hard-nosed approach to excessive labour market regulation - including reduced working hours - has already irritated the French government. The last time Jacques Chirac met Blair before yesterday was at a lunch in Strasbourg last month. The French President remarked to the company: "Tony est un socialiste moderne. Il est cinq kilometres a droite de moi." (There are unconfirmed rumours that Blair replied: "Oui Jacques - et j'en suis fier" - Yes, and I'm proud of it.) On most EU issues, Blair is closer to mid-Eighties Thatcher than to the Europhiliac caricature his opponents seek to conjure.

The other, related problem is public opinion. Even if you were to grant the Tory leadership their improbable claim that they could win an EMU referendum against a formidable cross party coalition of the biggest figures in British politics, that certainly doesn't apply to EU membership itself. Not only have the alleged defects of Amsterdam had zero impact on public opinion, but MORI's Bob Worcester points out in this week's New Statesman that the trend is quite opposite to what the sceptics want: there is even, amazingly, a swing towards a federal Europe - with 34 per cent in support compared with 17 per cent three years ago.

Most discussion of Hague's difficulties has concentrated on the split. But this may not be the primary problem, any more than unity is the solution. It may be that by pursuing the wrong policy the party risks disconnecting itself from the electorate. The closest potential parallel in Tory history is surely tariff reform. For much of the first quarter of the century the leadership promoted a policy that was almost universally popular inside the party, and utterly rejected by the electorate. Indeed, after the 1906 election the tariff reformers captured the party as the sceptics have captured today's Tory party. Yet when in 1923 Baldwin offered an unconditional promise of tariff reform, he lost the election. As the historian Robert Blake has written of the early century Tories: "Tariff reform remained an article of faith in the party ... in spite of its obvious unpopularity with the public ... Seldom has a party persisted so long in such an unpromising cause." Sound familiar?