Last week, an NOP poll for the Independent found that only a third of electors thought the Prime Minister was wrong to disrupt European Union business, against more than half who thought he was right. Further, 43 per cent thought Britain should threaten to withdraw from the EU. These results may be taken as a vindication not just of Mr Major but of Tony Blair's caution in criticising the Government. But it may be more accurate to see them as an indictment of the silence of the pro-Europeans.
Fifteen years ago, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen walked out of the Labour Party rather than subscribe to its proposals for a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EC. Any one of them might reasonably have entertained hopes of becoming party leader. Today's pro-Europeans show no such inclination to stand up and jeopardise their prospects. On the contrary, they fall over themselves to out-sceptic the sceptics. Thus, William Waldegrave, the Treasury Chief Secretary, said last week that "it is not madness to say we should be outside Europe". Without going as far as that, Stephen Dorrell has made increasingly anti-European noises in recent months. Lady Chalker, supposedly a strong European, as well as a supporter of overseas aid, apparently finds no difficulty in blocking proposals to make EU aid more effective - all as part of Mr Major's childish disruption policy.
Kenneth Clarke sometimes makes the right noises - but was it quite impossible for the Chancellor to do more to restrain his colleagues? Even on the backbenches, there seems little stomach for a fight. The newly formed Mainstream intends, as we revealed last week, to provide an umbrella for the Tory left. Yet its leader, David Hunt, does not look like the kind of man you would take with you in a storm. He was quite happy to excite the Tory party conference in 1993 with his references to Jacques Delors as "a jumped-up socialist bureaucrat". Now, he has assured Mr Major of his support in the beef war, as though this were a real shooting battle, with British lives at risk. Douglas Hurd's record is scarcely more creditable: it was he who, as Foreign Secretary, tried to assure us that the Maastricht Treaty was really a device for loosening European ties.
As for Labour, if it is indeed the party of Europe, it has nothing to crow about. "It is not as simple as that," said Donald Dewar, the Opposition Chief Whip, when asked which side the party was on. But it is really very simple. Mr Major's non-cooperation policy is politically driven - he wants to present himself as a hero to his Eurosceptic right and a doughty and decisive patriot to the voters. He thinks the "beef factor" may yet save him as the "Falklands factor" saved his predecessor and he doesn't care what demons he unleashes in the process. He has forgotten that Jacques Santer is not General Galtieri and that it is always a mistake to replay history, as Anthony Eden found over Suez. He has forgotten, too, what are supposed to be his saving attributes: his moderation and decency. Labour should be playing that card for all it is worth. It should be reminding us that the Government has been forced into its present stance because of its complete failure to convince anybody that it has adequate proposals for eradicating BSE from British herds. It should repeat that Continental consumers, not their governments, have imposed a ban on British beef by refusing to buy it; indeed, many of them have stopped eating beef altogether, regardless of its origins. So, for the sake of their own producers, EU governments have to convince their peoples that there is not the remotest danger of eating even a morsel from a British animal. Mr Major's beef war is just a cover for his government's incompetence. All his ministers are fit for is sitting in Brussels saying "No, no, no." They should not be allowed to turn us into a nation of Europhobes.Reuse content