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Leading Article: Why Honest John will not come clean

So, the negotiation of a single currency in Europe is to be likened to a boys' game. After his septem dies horribiles, John Major's much-hyped television interview relied heavily on red cards, football pitches and poker, laddish metaphors from an embattled prime minister. A master of bathos, Mr Major yesterday called the decision on going forward with monetary union the most important peacetime decision; others might claim that honour for accession to the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, but either way it seems that destiny is being approached in the spirit of a Las Vegas craps game. Our Number 10 card sharp says he is keeping his hand face down, to be revealed with a flourish in that city of sin, Amsterdam, in June next year. Ah, but won't there have been a general election by then? Well, yes: the possibility is that we shall never know what the deuce his position is.

It is important to see why that particular poker analogy, chosen with some care, is so disreputable. The Government's formal position is not the problem. Mr Major's public stand, expressed yesterday in a television performance that only a mediocre interviewer could make seem polished, is the correct one for any British leader to take. Now is the moment for empiricism, in the strict sense of waiting to see the gathering evidence, in the run-up to that intergovernmental meeting in Amsterdam next year, of the sustainability of the fiscal and financial commitments now being undertaken across Europe. No British government with any sense of recent economic history, or a feel for the decision-making processes within the European Union, could do anything but hold its horses.

So Mr Major is right when he insists on keeping his options open - if that is what he is really doing. His poker analogy, however, reveals in a not-so-Freudian way that he is in fact concealing his true position, not so much from his Continental counterparts as from the British public. All he tells them is that he rejects virtually everything about the European project that suggests further integration. No common policies for immigration or border control, no moves towards a common foreign policy, and certainly no common social policies. As for the extension of qualified majority voting, or extra powers to strengthen democracy through the European Parliament - no way. It would be logical, you might think, if we added common money to that list, since common money is a good deal more significant than, say, moves towards common policies on employment. Common money, after all, could have a huge effect on jobs.

But no; on common money, the cards are face down. Mr Major appears to have a view, but can't tell us what it is. He has to keep everyone guessing. If he is keeping us all guessing because he is waiting before he makes a judgement (as Kenneth Clarke is doing), then that would be fine. He says the Government wants to stop European partners committing the folly of linking their currencies while their economics and fiscal circumstances are out of sync. But Britain's participation in the first wave of monetary union is not a precondition of offering that sage advice. No: the real reason Mr Major won't show his hand is that if he told the truth about what he really thinks - that there is no way the UK would enter the first wave of monetary union while he leads the Government - then his party would fall apart.

The public can see the evidence all around them. And it won't do for Mr Major to dismiss that evidence as Westminster froth. The division of view within the Conservative Party is not a media fantasy embroidered by a handful of obstreperous backbenchers. It is a fundamental party division over a fundamental issue, no different in potency to the tariff reform argument that split the party from top to bottom in the first two decades of this century.

It is for that reason that the Major cards remain unshown. His objective is short-term and selfish. The game is not rebuilding Europe, it is keeping the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his supporters sweet, and holding the Euro-sceptic majority in his party at bay.

Building Europe is not at all like poker. And it is a game that cannot be played in fuggy backrooms. It has to be played out in public. The sour aftermath to the Maastricht treaty showed how dangerous it is to build European union on the back of public ignorance and discontent. This great work must, above all, be a visible effort of democratic leaders. That does not prevent some leaders saying: no, movement in this direction is too far and too fast.

It was intriguing yesterday to hear hovering somewhere in Mr Major's mind that old quote by Nye Bevan about not going naked into the conference chamber. But Bevan, justifying his conversion to nuclear deterrence, meant above all that international negotiation in the national interest should be carried forward on the basis of public confidence and assent - and knowledge of what the government might offer to give or take. All the Prime Minister says by contrast is, "trust me, I'm honest John." He isn't. And there are too many in his party who too obviously don't trust him. And the electoral significance of that is that voters will withhold their trust, too.

Mr Major has no way out. If he bravely told the truth, that he will not lead his party or the country into monetary union, his Government would split on the eve of an election. It will probably happen anyway - but he still can't tell the truth, because if he gives an inch, he gives a mile to the Euro-sceptics, and he doesn't want to go all the way to withdrawal from Europe. That is what this is all about: does the Conservative Party want to be in Europe, or not? It is an issue that the party will be able to resolve only when out of power. Mr Major made it plain yesterday that it cannot be decided while he is in power.