Major must seize the moment, or die

Douglas Hurd has written the script on EMU. The PM has to deliver it
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The Independent Online
John Major needs another bold stroke. The circumstances are utterly different from his decision to contest the leadership in 1995 but some of the same agonies that preceded it have returned. Standing up to the demands to rule out a single currency in the next Parliament, or at least in its first phase, is at once easier and more difficult than his 1995 decision.

It is easier because the full Cabinet decided in April to leave the issue of monetary union open. It is more difficult because of the strength of the constituency in favour of ruling it out, and because Major's opponents are convinced he no longer believes in the policy.

It scarcely matters whether they are right. What matters is that as long as they think it they will continue to push him to the brink. Major is frustrated. His Chancellor stands between him and a deal with the right that would ease his passage through what could yet be an explosive last party conference before the election. A deal would end the messily destructive prospect of around 100 MPs and candidates fighting the election on an anti-EMU platform in direct conflict with government policy. It would also prevent a stand-up cabinet row with hard-line Euro-sceptics over what goes in the manifesto.

Major's principal defence so far has been that to decide the issue before the election would be to sacrifice the chance to influence the negotiations leading to monetary union. The more imminent the election, and therefore the establishment of EMU, the more his opponents will argue that such considerations have become irrelevant because there is less to influence. Ministerial Euro-sceptics wilfully overestimate the electoral advantages of achieving their goal; and wilfully underestimate the divisions exposed by pursuing it.

But they haven't given up. Sir Nicholas Bonsor, who attacked Kenneth Clarke on Tuesday, has some friends in high places, including Michael Howard, whom he would like to see lead the party when Major stands down. Howard knew nothing of Bonsor's attack until it had happened, much less put him up to it. But the connection demonstrates that his constituency is powerful as well as numerous. In short if the left buckled, many of Major's travails would evaporate.

But the left isn't going to buckle. Slowly, belatedly, the pro-European one-nation wing of the party is fighting back

Douglas Hurd makes an unlikely backbench agitator, and never expected to be one. But he warmed to his role yesterday, eloquently restating the case against ruling out a single currency - but also, for good measure, backing the Chancellor against strident calls for extravagant tax cuts.

But where he said it was more important than what he said. More than 100 Tory MPs and 30 ministers have supported yesterday's launch -in a Westminster club -of the broadly pro-European, one-nation, Conservative Mainstream group. A fair sprinkling of both turned out yesterday to support an organisation that will remain active until the election. It would be fantasy to assume that more than a minority of these would go over the brink with the Chancellor. But it is equally fantasy to suggest that he would be on his own.

Clarke may regret the phrasing of his remarks last Sunday - but routine claims that he was misrepresented in the press have a hollow ring. He was trying to argue that it would be cowardice to opt out of the first wave without fully considering the economic implications. And he first affirmed the need for Britain to do that at the Madrid summit last December. What's more, the current reading within the Treasury of the Maastricht treaty is that Britain may be able to join the first wave of EMU as late as 1999. If true, it fatally undermines the claim that those implications will all be clear by the election.

Clarke's resignation would be a disaster, on the markets and for the Government, even if no ministers followed him -which some certainly would. Michael Heseltine, Sir George Young, Sir Patrick Mayhew and John Gummer broadly agree with him. And even if they were persuaded to stay, Alistair Burt, Tim Eggar and David Curry would be among more junior ministers who would probably go. The Government would fall, perhaps within days.

It's now clear that one of the reasons why Major was determined to get a deal on BSE in Florence is that at least two backbenchers signalled that they were not going to stand for the policy of non-co-operation continuing. It's quite possible enough would abstain to ensure the Government lost on a confidence vote. This is a momentous step, but one legitimised by the rebels who turned against the Government over Maastricht in 1993 when Major turned the issue into a confidence vote.

Logic, if not instinct, points Major towards only one course. Doing as the Euro-sceptics demand is suicidal. But doing nothing won't work, either. Senior Tories now speak with a kind of apprehensive relish of the spectacle that the economic debate at Bournemouth in a fortnight could become as the right use it to force open the issue of ruling out EMU.

At the very minimum, Major has to restate yet again the policy of ruling nothing in and nothing out in his conference speech on the Friday. But if he is sensible he will do it before then, in such terms that every attack on the policy at the conference will be transformed into an attack on him. Constituency activists will not forgive any such disloyalty so close to an election. The Prime Minister needs to do it with such conviction that it closes the issue. Douglas Hurd produced the script yesterday. Now Major has to deliver it.