Labour can gain from the 48-hour watershed

Now that the Tories may have finally found their clear blue water, Tony Blair is free to swim to Europe
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The most telling moment in the aftermath of this week's European Court Judgment upholding the 48-hour week was the Commons intervention of the criminal barrister Sir Ivan Lawrence. Lawrence is a rock-solid and belligerent MP of the old Tory right. He's a populist, all right, but he isn't on the extreme edge of Europhobia by Tory standards. He wasn't, for example, a whipless rebel. Yet he suggested that Europe should be told that "if we are not to get fair play ... we are prepared to leave the European Union". If he had said that five years ago, it would have caused a sensation. On this occasion there wasn't even a murmur of protest.

If nothing else, Lawrence's excitable response is a reminder of just how euphoric his backbenchers - and his super-fickle supporters among Tory editors and proprietors - are now that John Major has a tailor-made European issue to be tough about. It unites the Tory party because it strikes at its ideologically non-interventionist heart.

The Prime Minister has a real case, which is that the 48-hour directive was forced through as a Health and Safety measure simply in order to avoid the British veto. It is far from mere fantasy to suppose that he can secure, as part of the inter-governmental negotiations on the EU's future, a political decision that will in effect reverse the court judgment. In short, and in contrast to the miserable episode of BSE for which Douglas Hogg bore the parliamentary brunt in an Opposition censure debate in the Commons yesterday, he could actually win.

What's more the 48-hour week has provided a casus belli, when the IGC threatened to be rather free of others in the run-up to the election. The Foreign Office view, for some time, has been that Britain's EU partners would try to avoid showdowns with Major in the run-up to the election, precisely because they feared that Labour would simply follow them into whatever Euro-sceptic trench the Prime Minister chose to inhabit. And that if they did, it would be all the more difficult for Tony Blair to do deals if and when he won the election. Here, by contrast, was an issue on which Tony Blair could not fail, because of Labour's natural constituency, to play the pro-European card and so open up clear water between himself and the Tories. And in the process break his own campaign rules by alienating newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail which so fulsomely praised Major yesterday.

But is this a threat or an opportunity for Labour? Blair can defend the 48-hour measure on its own merits without buying into the whole employee protection agenda now threatened by the EU social affairs commissioner Padraig Flynn. But the 48-hour issue may also prove a watershed.

Those close to Tony Blair strongly deny it, but there have been distinct signs of a muting of Labour's pro-European rhetoric over the past few months. Take EMU, for example. Robin Cook, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, surfaces from time to time and gives strong and lightly coded indications that he is against going into the single currency in the first wave - though not with such vehemence that he would have to resign if it happened. Gordon Brown gets a bit cross behind the scenes. But the headlines stick, especially in an approving Euro-sceptic press, and the impression is allowed to run that Labour wouldn't go in during the first wave. Labour might well not go in a first wave, though there is no sign that Tony Blair has made up his mind on the issue. The headlines may be helpful now, but they carry a danger, too: if Labour did want to go in with the first wave, it would be all the more difficult to condition public opinion to the idea in the short time that will be available after the election.

This is only an example; EMU isn't the only show in town, though it is the one currently preoccupying Europe to the exclusion of most others. But it illustrates a larger and, perhaps, counter-intuitive point: that Labour's best response is attack rather than defence. It's not just that it cannot outflank the Tories in Euro-scepticism - as perhaps it can on law and order - even if it wanted to. Public opinion doesn't exist in a vacuum; it responds to political leadership. And circumstances, as well as conviction, continue to dictate that Labour has to fight the election as the party of Europe.

Labour can legitimately point out that the drain of British influence in Europe has reduced its capacity to secure objectives the Government shares with the other Westminster parties. For example, there is the prosaic but hugely important issue of reforming the Common Agricultural Policy. The presence of the Ivan Lawrences - not to mention the Norman Lamonts or the dozens of MPs who will defy Government policy by ruling out the single currency in their election addresses - actually makes it easier for Labour to argue that Britain has to decide whether it wants to be in or out, and if the answer is in, that Labour is the party to restore Britain's political capital in Europe.

The Europe envisaged by Tony Blair is not so different, perhaps, from the one that John Major and Kenneth Clarke, left entirely to themselves, would choose. But there is nothing shameful about offering a new start in trying to achieve it. This week, in preparation for his trip to see President Chirac, Blair gave one or two interviews to the Paris press in French. It is a tiny, but rather refreshing, start.