Leading Article: Which Tory party would you be voting for?

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The Independent Online
Two weeks ago John Major held up a spade and said: "This is a spade". Yesterday he held it up and said: "This is a spade - and it's a shovel, too". Two weeks ago it was a "fantasy" (his word) that ministers would publicly dissent from the Government's policy on Europe. On Tuesday night it emerged that they had. Yesterday the Prime Minister boldly declared that any view other than the Government's line was "folly". But he then said the fools' views were fully in line with his own. They were totally opposed to a single European currency. But they could stay in the Government because they agreed that Britain should negotiate and then decide. Black can be seen as white. Chalk can also be cheese. You do not have to mix very many more metaphors, nor do you have to make a fetish of the idea of strong leadership, to find this degree of contradiction helplessly - tragically - absurd.

There is a view that textual analysis of local election addresses on the single currency is an obsession of the media village, an abstruse game far removed from the concerns of real people. This view was forcibly expressed by Michael Heseltine yesterday. "I don't think the public out there are in the least bit interested in the niceties of the argument. But they are interested in the substance of the issue," said the Deputy PM.

Unfortunately for him, the views of ministers on the euro are the substance of the issue. And the single European currency is emphatically an issue that matters. If it goes ahead, as it still seems it will in two years' time, Britain is unlikely to be a member at the outset. The decision on membership, yes or no, may well not have to be taken in the next five years. But, if there is any prospect of our entering the single currency at some point, we have to be ready to take part in the discussion about its composition.

The "wait and see" policy (the policy that is, on the face of it, agreed by both Tory and Labour) is the right policy. The present design of the euro laid down in the Maastricht Treaty is flawed on democratic grounds, in that the currency would be run by politically independent central bankers. Few people are wholly convinced of its economic merits.

But if Britain begins to suffer because it stands outside the single currency - because we endure higher interest rates and lost investment - then it may be better to join and seek to influence it from within rather than simply be influenced powerlessly outside.

That is the essence of the "wait and see" case. But we have reached an extraordinary moment. Indeed, it is a historic one. Voters who agree with the wait-and-see policy, however reluctantly, cannot sensibly vote for the Prime Minister's party.

Why? Because the Prime Minister's party, whatever the Prime Minister himself might say, has made it resoundingly clear that it will never countenance replacing the pound with the euro. Period. Mr Major may protest all he likes, but it makes no difference. If he were re-elected (think this through) he would either have to ditch his wait-and-see policy immediately (in which case, what's a manifesto for?), or he would have to be replaced as party leader five minutes after he won (in which case, what is this election for?).

Put that another way: Mr Major is now in the appalling position of asking the people of this country to vote on a fraudulent prospectus. The Tory manifesto says quite clearly that it is "in our national interest to keep our options open" on monetary union. But if a Tory government were re- elected, it is inconceivable that that option would be kept open.

That is why yesterday was a fateful day - not only in this election campaign, but in the long story of British politics. It was not because the Conservative Party seemed to be divided, although it was, but because of what it was divided about and the consequences of that division. The parallel with the Labour Party in 1983 is not exact, but it is instructive. On 20 May 1983, with less than three weeks to go before polling day, Denis Healey, the deputy Labour leader, publicly disagreed with Michael Foot over the party's one-sided nuclear disarmament policy. This was no media mirage, but a fundamental disagreement which split the party from top to bottom on an issue of vital national importance. The unilateralists then and the Eurosceptics now share a backward-looking notion of national autonomy - an outdated view of Britain's place in the world. The unilateralists in the early Eighties temporarily won the soul of the Labour Party - and consigned it to nearly two decades of oblivion. Draw your own comparisons.

Tony Blair correctly describes this as the defining moment of the election campaign. It is a moment that defines John Major as a prisoner of the Euro-sceptic tendency which, win or lose, will take control of his party after the election. The calculation being made by the rats on the sinking ship is, obviously, that the Tory party has already lost any semblance of unity, and can only win votes by trying to appeal to the supposedly popular position of overt rejection of the single currency.

Oh, but most voters are wiser than that. They know that the Tories are out of touch. They know that this clamour to reject the Government's wait- and-see policy has nothing to do with what people are saying on the doorsteps. It is about trying to gratify Tory activists and about scared Tory MPs trying to protect their backs. John Major, sticking by a wise policy, but the prisoner of an increasingly foolish party, is complicit in that sorry spectacle.

In all probability, voters will indeed draw their own conclusion. They will not need newspapers to point it out.