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Leading article: Hague's gamble could pay off for the Tories

HE MAY have had a poor reception in some quarters but at least William Hague, in his speech on Europe, has put some clear blue water between his party and the Government. And, although some of his language was intemperate and many of his assumptions wrong-headed, he was right to make his contribution.

We do not share Mr Hague's Euroscepticism. But Euro-enthusiasts should still welcome discussion about whether the European Union's forty-year- old institutions, technocratic and dirigiste, are now the right ones to command the democratic respect of all the peoples of Europe. True, Mr Hague was very unwise to invoke the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union as examples of the possible fate of the EU if a single currency is introduced and institutions are not reformed. The idea that the EU will trigger civil unrest is absurd, if sincerely put. Mr Hague was also too eager to discount the motivation of those who seek to banish even the remotest prospect of war through an "ever closer union".

Despite these lapses, the arguments that Mr Hague put deserved better than the routine scorn poured on them by Michael Heseltine and other Euro- grandees. They have not tackled the arguments, and have confined themselves to urging Mr Hague to head for the centre ground; but why should this be healthier for the Tories than clarity, a quality in short supply in the last, and for them disastrous, parliament?

Tactically Mr Hague is right to take a gamble on Europe. He has to reject a "me too" approach to the Government's policy. No one could take a Euro- enthusiastic Tory party seriously. Mr Hague was, after all, elected by his party a year ago specifically to deliver a harder line on Europe. He beat Kenneth Clarke, who wanted to keep John Major's "wait and see" approach. To adapt one of Tony Blair's slogans, Mr Hague was elected as a Eurosceptic and he will lead as a Eurosceptic. The Tories will never truly unite on this issue, but at least this way they now have a policy and can perform the useful function of opposing the Government, provoking argument, and speaking out for the section of the electorate who want to keep the pound.

Mr Hague will reap a substantial dividend if economic and monetary union is not successful. He might also entice the Murdoch press back to their old allegiances. The more Eurosceptic of the two main parties managed to win general elections in 1974 and 1992. So scepticism is not always and self-evidently a vote-loser. And what if the Euro is a success? Well, the Conservative Party would get itself a new leader and a new policy. The Tories would find themselves in the same position on Europe as they do now on constitutional reform - learning to live with irreversible changes as a matter of practical politics. Embarrassing but survivable. Mr Hague's policy is, in other words, quite a serviceable one for opposition in the first parliament of the Blair administration. Who knows, he might even start a debate which demonstrates the vibrant British democracy that we are told we are in danger of losing.