Let Roy Jenkins' fate be a warning to Kenneth Clarke

Political Commentary
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TOWARDS the middle of last week stories began to appear in the papers that Mr Kenneth Clarke was not a contented Chancellor. In the argot of the modern Conservative Party, he was no longer a happy bunny. Indeed, Mr Clarke - for it could only have been he - let it be known that he was contemplating resignation. With that, he took himself off to Africa for a spell of bird-watching and other improving activities.

Last week also saw the publication of the White Paper on the forthcoming intergovernmental conference at Turin, which is expected to go on into 1997, when even Mr William Cash will have been bored out of his wits. The document is attributed confidently to Mr Malcolm Rifkind, though many other old hands at the Foreign Office must have put spade to paper as well. It is in glorious technicolor - not like a traditional White Paper at all - with charts, coloured maps, extravagantly wide margins and blue type, resembling altogether a prospectus got up by an advertising agency on behalf of a dubious company. There is little in it to alarm Mr Clarke or anyone else, Europhobe or Europhile.

It goes on rather tediously about "the nation state" and "the national interest". It mounts a slippery argument favouring both a reduction in the voting powers of the smaller Community states and simultaneously a retention of the United Kingdom's present votes: 10, the same as those wielded by France, Germany and Italy, even though Germany has a population of 82 million compared to an average of 58 million for the other three.

It pays generous tribute to the work of Lord Cockfield in virtually creating the Single Market single-handed when he was a Commissioner, before he fell out with Lady Thatcher: either Mr Rifkind is trying to be provocative or, more likely, the lads at the FO do not fully comprehend the complexities of Conservative politics. And it merrily looks forward to the entry of Cyprus into the Community (as it will continue to be called in this column until it becomes a true Union), with negotiations beginning six months after the end of the conference, even though that unhappy island does not have a proper government at all or, rather, has two of them, one Greek, the other Turkish.

Those whose taste for fantasy is satisfied by this and similar excursions need look no further than the White Paper, which they can peruse to their hearts' content. But of what is supposed to be agitating Mr Clarke, and is certainly disturbing the rest of the Conservative Party - a single European currency, and the possibility of a UK referendum on it - there is nothing at all. To read some of the news stories and leading articles on the White Paper, one could be forgiven for thinking that it contained little else. In fact, all it says is:

"Other issues have been raised in the Study Group report, in various European Council conclusions and in other decisions and declarations. These are listed in Annex A. One notable omission from the list is Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) which is not expected to be discussed at the IGC."

The single currency is evidently too boring for Annex A or even for Annex B. That, no doubt, is what Mr Rifkind and Mr John Major would like the Conservative Party to believe until the election was out of the way. They are clearly right: not so much that the subject is boring (though it unquestionably partakes of that quality too) as that there is no point in the Conservatives' continuing to tear themselves apart over something for which they will probably have no responsibility whatever. They can leave it all to Mr Tony Blair, and happily oppose him if he proposes to take us into a single currency.

Mr Blair has not said whether he will or not. No more has Mr Gordon Brown or Mr Robin Cook. They have been content to make vaguely pro-European noises and, sitting safely on the school wall, to egg on the playground bullies beneath them. For once, the People's Party is behaving sensibly.

The Labour leader has not promised a referendum either. He has not even promised one on Welsh devolution. My miserable fellow countrymen are to have a ridiculous Assembly imposed upon them whether they like it or not. The only referendum to which Labour is committed is on electoral reform, though the precise question to be asked remains conveniently unclear.

Mr Major, by contrast, has already promised a referendum on a single currency. He promised it on his last-but-one jaunt to foreign parts. Always pay the closest attention to what prime ministers say about domestic politics when they are abroad. Like ordinary mortals, they behave in a more relaxed way. They think no one is listening. Anyhow, what Mr Major said was that he would almost certainly hold a referendum if a united Cabinet recommended our entry into a single currency.

We know this would not satisfy Sir James Goldsmith. He wants a more general referendum on our place in Europe. Short of a straight In or Out question, it is difficult to see what form this could take. But nothing probably would satisfy Sir James. Dr Brian Mawhinney was wise to tell him to go away. If once you have paid him the Jim-geld, you never get rid of Jimmy. However, British - unlike United States or French - voters have a good record of seeing off rich lunatics. Sir James, though certainly rich, is not exactly mad but merely looks as if he is, with staring eyes and a habit of pacing crazily up and down. Tory MPs are scared of him, but they are a cowardly lot at the best of times.

Yet the Europhobes are equally dissatisfied with Mr Major's promise. They want some broader commitment. What it should be they are not quite sure, but something. None of them, as far as I know, has identified the real reason why they should be hostile: that, if there is a referendum on a government proposal to do anything whatever, the government almost invariably wins. Dictators have always followed this principle. Harold Wilson also understood it when he cemented us in Europe through the referendum.

In opposition before 1974, Mr Tony Benn had pushed through Labour's commitment to a referendum. He did so partly because he wanted us out of Europe but partly also because he wanted to isolate Labour's Europhiles and, if possible, force them out of the party. He succeeded partially in the latter object when Lord Jenkins resigned the deputy leadership in 1972 specifically over the commitment to a referendum. He failed completely in the former object when the voters decided to stay in Europe in 1975.

Kenneth Clarke has allowed himself to be forced into the position of the Roy Jenkins of the Conservative Party. He has been a good Chancellor, though not as good as Lord Jenkins. Like Lord Jenkins, he stands on one side of his party and has enemies both on the other side and in the middle. And, like Lord Jenkins, he is in danger of permitting himself to be manoeuvred out of effective politics over a bogus issue.