Leading Article: Tories lose the plot

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IT WASN'T such a good idea to hold that ballot of Conservative Party members after all, though it obviously seemed a wizard wheeze to William Hague and his advisers. The intention was to avoid allowing arguments over the euro to dominate the conference by copying what Tony Blair did with Clause IV. But Europe is not like Clause IV. You can't vote Europe, or the euro, out of existence. Clause IV was internal Labour Party business, highly symbolic, but the real-world argument about a state-controlled economy was lost in the 1940s. On the euro, however, the nation still has to make its decision and, while the opposition to it in the Tory party is undoubtedly overwhelming, the views of the people as a whole are much less clear-cut on the issue.

One must have a heart of stone to read of the plight of the Tory party without laughing. Still, it is all too easy to scoff. The fundamentals of Mr Hague's position are awful. John Major's "wait and see" compromise satisfied no one. Mr Hague has replaced it with a more Eurosceptical position: "Say no and then wait and see". But it is still a compromise and it still satisfies no one. He is caught in a sceptical ratchet which seems to be dragging him towards saying "never" to the euro - or even to advocating withdrawal from the EU itself.

Yet the ratchet of history is pulling the country in the other direction. This newspaper has long championed the cause of European unity, and wanted Britain to help shape the euro as a founder member. But even those who are more doubtful, and there are plenty of good reasons for hesitating, have to agree with Robin Cook, the formerly sceptical Foreign Secretary, that if the euro is a success then in the long term it cannot be in Britain's interest to stay out.

In the end, it is likely to be the genuine sceptics who will decide this issue. A large chunk of the British people are sceptical about the euro in the proper sense. They do not like it much, and are dubious about it. They did not like decimalisation. It was a shopkeeper's ramp, it was inflationary and it was all very difficult to do the conversions. But, partly for that reason, they are not as attached to the British currency as they might be. They seem to get new Continental-style coins every other week. They quite liked the 1950s and the idea of having an empire, but they realise that all that has gone now. Reluctantly, they accepted it when Edward Heath told them there was no alternative but to join Europe in 1971. And they will accept it when that sensible Mr Blair tells them the same thing.

Thus Mr Hague really could find himself trapped, in his own colourful phrase about membership of EMU, in a "burning building with no exits". The Conservatives have locked themselves into the losing side when the referendum on the euro comes, because Mr Blair will not hold it until he is sure he can win. Their only hope is that the euro is a failure, and it is hard to see how that could be. It will cause strains: there will be mergers, job shakeouts and transitional costs as companies adjust to the new forces within a single currency area of 287 million people - even without the UK it is bigger than the USA's 273 million. But the result will be huge economies of scale and productivity gains in a large, stable market. Equally, the moment the world tips into recession is the worst time to launch a currency union, but the euro is likely to afford its members more protection against the storm than the pound will give us.

The British people will realise that. It is not good for the quality of our democracy that the main party of opposition has chosen to write itself out of the script for the next eight years, but it is impossible to see how Mr Hague can get down the fire escape.