Major turns his back on the Europhiles

The sceptical gang in the Tory party is growing and the Prime Minister is ready to join
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The Independent Online
The anti-Europeans are winning; they have John Major's heart. Kenneth Clarke, the most pugnacious and uncompromising of the Europhiles left in the Cabinet, suggested at the weekend that his views on the subject were "indistinguishable'' from the Prime Minister's. Was he taking the mickey? Over the past few weeks the evidence has become irresistible. Downing Street has flipped into the Euro-sceptical camp, quite firmly and - as we shall see - irrevocably. There was the Breakfast with Frost interview after the Christmas break, in which Major promised that nothing substantial would come out of the 1996 IGC - if it did, he would veto it. He has been saying privately that he is anti-single currency; now he is coming off the fence in public, too.

That was a shift against the cabinet pro-Europeans and towards the rebels; it was noticed by both sides in the party. Michael Portillo said he was "much more encouraged'', adding that Major would "want to develop his thinking about the future of Europe over the next year.''

Ministerial briefings followed, both privately and openly, suggesting that the rebels were fine fellows, not really separated from the Government view at all. But the whipless Tories rebuffed Major anyway, rebelling again on the fisheries vote and issuing a mini-manifesto, a call to arms which, if taken seriously, would put Britain on course for leaving the EU. How did No 10 react to this display of calm impudence? The love-letters became more heavily scented and panting than before. Now it looks as if it is the rebels who are dictating terms.

So, indistinguishable? The difference between Major's eagerness to agree with Euro-sceptical rebels and Clarke's contempt for them could be distinguished at 500 yards by a short-sighted drunk on a foggy night (in Dudley). One can sympathise with Clarke'sdesire to help rebuild the government majority. He is, above all, a Tory and a loyalist. But he is starting to look like a Tory loyalist on the losing side.

Pro-European ministers insist that no pass has been sold on policy, that all this is merely tactical verbiage, designed to bring back the rebels and restore the Government's majority as soon as possible. But rumours swirl round Whitehall of stronger words being planned still on the single currency issue - words that would make the position of the Chancellor, for one, extremely difficult.

Even putting that to one side, the complacency of the pro-Europeans in Government underestimates the psychology of what is happening. What, for instance, is the other recent change in Conservative politics, which coincides with the wooing of the rebels? It is the extraordinary transformation in the morale of Major himself. He is like a man who has recovered his nerve - no, more, who has resolved some inner conflict.

And perhaps he has. After nearly five years of being unsure whether to side with the pro-Europeans or the antis, and of being caught endlessly in the crossfire, perhaps he has made his mind up. Certainly, he exudes the air of a man who has chosen.

His faith in the judgement of the key Europeans, such as Clarke, Heseltine and Hurd, has been shaken by the way the removal of the whip backfired: though the Prime Minister himself chaired the "inner cabinet'' discussions which led to the punishment, he seems to have mentally obliterated his own rather central role in it.

He is not as respectful of "Douglas'' and "Ken'' as once he was; the failure of the anti-rebel tactic exposes them as fallible and perhaps, in Major's view, less shrewd than Major himself. That helps justify a cruder judgement, which is that the pro-European gang on the backbenches is less threatening to him than the anti-European gang.

The whips' advice to ministers has been that fewer than 30 hardcore Europeans are left, compared with more than 100 anti-Europeans. Either group could bring down the Government, of course, but which is the more dangerous, organised, determined? No contest. It is almost as if Major has simply looked at the two groups of playground bullies, decided which is the beastliest, and joined it.

He will be welcomed warmly enough: the flattering editorials are waiting, and so are the condescending greetings of the Thatcherites. Over the past week or two, right-wingers who campaigned for him during the leadership contest, and then went about saying what fools they had been, have been changing their tune. Now, Major is back among his own people after a long and unhappy exile during which he fell among cabinet ministers. It is the Return of the Prodigal Leader.

This is, of course, pretty disgusting nonsense. These are the same people who, just a few weeks earlier, were deriding him as a hopeless failure who deserved to be putsched. And this is the man who not so long ago looked around a private dinner of Positive Europeans and declared: "This is my kind of Conservative Party.''

This, though, is about more than the psychology of survival. There is a dynamic at work which the pro-Europeans had better start to understand. It is most clearly seen in the case of the whipless rebels. Their rebellion has been a triumphant success, hasit not? They have influenced the Prime Minister's tone and, with their ministerial allies, now have real hopes of influencing European outcomes, too. They have the ear of colleagues, more than before, and have become heroes to the anti-European Tories in the constituencies, more so than the non-rebels. They have the power, and the glory, too.

What is the obvious conclusion for less brave anti-EU Tories next time a crunch issue comes before the Commons? It is to revolt. Across the party, others have noticed how the wind is blowing, are hardening their anti-European rhetoric in the constituencies, and will be more aggressive in the Commons on these issues in future.

So the centre of gravity shifts, continuously, and that mass of unprincipled, careerist MPs start to move, too, baa-ing loudly. And, bit by bit, the pro-European ministers, out of touch in their departments, but quite sure everything will be all right inthe end, become more and more isolated. Until, one day, they suddenly find themselves dispensible.

That has not happened yet, though some senior ministers have asked themselves at what point resignation becomes a serious option. The pro-Europeans have not lined up to threaten Major with trouble; they still feel they have the seniority and weight to make such crudity unnecessary. He can only take his rapprochement with the right so far.

Well, perhaps. But the movement is all one way and the political signficance of what is happening is already huge. The pro-Europeans may tell themselves that this is mere short-term tactics, and that the broad thrust of policy is as before. But it's hooey. This is an administration for which "strategy'' is merely the collective noun for whatever tactics No 10 happens to be pursuing at the time, and in which the tactics of survival harden into policy. The defensive silence of Europhile Tories is losing them ground, day after day. And soon, it may lose them far more than that.