Leading Article: Nauseating and pathetic

IT IS far from clear in what world the Conservative Party's Europhobes are living. For several months they have shown their readiness to divide the party, to its own great detriment. By behaving like an alternative, internal opposition, they have added greatly to the Government's difficulties - not a few of which derive from policy errors in the Thatcher era to which they look back so nostalgically. With their mutinous threats they have reduced the standing abroad not just of the Government but of the country of which they pose as such doughty patriots.

A few, including Lord Tebbit, are now saying that losing John Major as Prime Minister would be a worthwhile price to pay for defeating the Maastricht Bill. Yet these same people were happy to be re-elected in April under Mr Major, who was widely rated a key factor in the party's victory. And they were content to fight on a manifesto that stated 'The Conservatives have been the party of Britain in Europe for 30 years'; and that 'the Maastricht treaty was a success both for Britain and for the rest of Europe' (not least because much of it goes against the federalising trend). Once re-elected, they fought viciously to disprove these statements.

The spectacle is both nauseating and pathetic: nauseating because this heterogeneous rump of Thatcherites, little Englanders, xenophobes and eccentric constitutionalists appears to have no concept of loyalty; pathetic because they have no alternative agenda. In their conceit they are convinced they know better than the Government (and the Opposition) where this country's true interests lie. But what vision do they substitute? Not, to be sure, of a perfidious Albion notorious for going back on treaties that it has signed; nor of a country whose outdated notions of sovereignty led either to Britain being marginalised in Europe, or to a historic undermining of the EC's role as a bulwark against resurgent nationalism. Yet those are both likely outcomes. The Europhobes' idea of the EC reverting to a mere Common Market is a naive anachronism.

At last Mr Major has decided to take them on. He knows that failure to have the Maastricht ratification process under way before the Edinburgh summit in December would seriously undermine British influence in Europe: his negotiating position has already been weakened by his party's divisions over the Bill's timetable. And he knows that if the Bill is lost, his own credibility as well as Britain's position within the EC will be shattered. This has set in train procedures that will confront the rebels with the ultimate choice: toe the line or bring down the Government by voting against a confidence motion.

It is virtually unthinkable that he would call a general election, let alone resign, without having gone through that procedure - which makes his threats to do so seem gratuitous and constitutionally eccentric. As for the anti-Maastricht rebels, it is scarcely conceivable that they would precipitate a general election which would almost certainly be fought on a different issue, and one much closer to most people's hearts: the Government's management of the economy. Yet the record suggests that thinking through the likely consequences of their actions is not a strong point. If the rest of the party does not wish to go down with them, its elders must jerk the potential rebels to their senses.