Political Commentary: That applause was too loud and too long, Mr Portillo

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FROM TIME to time the Conservative Party changes tack. On rarer occasions it also breaks up, with parts of the vessel floating off in all directions, to be reassembled later in a different form. It happened in 1846, over the repeal of the Corn Laws, and in 1903, over tariff reform. It may be about to happen again, over the European Community.

The Community now likes to call itself the European Union. That is because it hopes it will become one in due course. But it is not a union yet. 'European Union' is an example of propagandist language, even more shameless than 'community charge'. We should have nothing to do with it. I propose to carry on using 'European Community' until matters have changed significantly. The Conservative problem is whether to resist this change or reluctantly to acquiesce in it. Most of the evidence still points to the latter course.

Mr John Major will continue to give his much-admired impersonation of white man speaking with forked tongue. At Bournemouth and other seaside resorts in the autumn he will declare, to loud applause, that the Government does not propose to put up with any more nonsense from Brussels - though on Friday he confined himself to generalities about enlargement and about saying No. At Brussels itself and in other foreign parts he will promise to somnolent audiences of Eurocrats that we yield to none in our attachment to the European ideal. Mr Kenneth Clarke, Mr Michael Heseltine and Mr Douglas Hurd will make more heartfelt but equally subdued noises; while Mr Michael Portillo and one or two others, such as Mr Peter Lilley, will be granted a licence to roam provided they do not overstep certain ill-defined boundaries.

This was more or less the compromise which Mr Major had worked out, or which had imposed itself upon him by events. Provided the waters of the inter-governmental conference of 1996 could be sufficiently muddied, ministers thought it would carry them through to the election. The odds are still that it will, just about. But they have shifted in the direction of Mr Portillo and Mr Lilley.

There was argument about whether Mr Portillo had roamed beyond the boundaries. The consensus was that he had not. After all, in olden times Mr Heseltine had frequently orated about the affairs of every department except his own. On Wednesday - in a performance which recalled Denis Compton batting after his knee had gone - he stuck more closely to his own business. Indeed, in one of the most shameless breaches of collective responsibility I have ever heard, he appealed to the conference against the semi-decision of the Cabinet not to proceed with the privatisation of the Post Office. It is an indication of the extent to which Europe dominated the conference that the latest instalment in the case of Heseltine v The Constitution was hardly noticed.

Mr Portillo, it was reluctantly agreed, had stayed, just about, within the limits of propriety. But to be applauded so loudly and for so long was a breach of ministerial rules. Among the most powerful motives in politicians is what is usually called jealousy but is really envy. Mr Portillo will be made to pay a price in some way - as Mr Heseltine was by Lady Thatcher. Mr Heseltine then brought her down, after Lord Howe had struck the first blow. Mr Portillo is, whatever happens, not going to try to bring down Mr Major. But he could yet force on him a change of policy over Europe.

Mr Norman Lamont would help. Mr Lamont's contribution from the fringe was a high-class production. The time spent in preparing a speech still counts, even in this debased age. It was said afterwards that he was an embittered man. So he is. But one's motives for believing a proposition true are irrelevant to its truth or falsehood. Perhaps Mr Lamont's speech was too good for the audience, like the ball with which Wilfred Rhodes once bowled a Cambridge batsman.

'That was a good ball, Rhodes,' the undergraduate said patronisingly to him as he walked back to the pavilion.

'Aye, too good for thee,' the surly Yorkshireman replied.

For the first time, a former minister has stated that we derive no economic gain and make a loss through our membership of the Community. Admittedly Lord Jay and Mr Peter Shore have been saying the same for years. But their message has grown stale through repetition. Mr Lamont also contemplated withdrawal from the Community, as no senior Conservative politician has done.

Here he found himself at odds with Lord Tebbit, who regards Mr Lamont as something of a Norman-come-lately. So does Mr William Cash. Some commentators have inferred that, because the Conservative Europhobes represent different views and occasionally grab one another's lapels, they are accordingly a negligible force. Well, those same observers predicted confidently before the Maastricht debates that, for identical reasons, the opposition would collapse and the Government would have its way. The opposition did not collapse - and the Government had its way by one vote.

What Mr Portillo and his allies think they can offer Mr Major is not so much a Britain strong and free as a means of winning the election. There would be an issue. The traditional positions of the parties have now been reversed. From the early 1960s until the late 1970s the Conservatives were the party of Europe. Today Labour enthusiastically fill their place.

It was a Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who cemented us in Europe through the 1975 referendum. The device was originally urged by the anti-European Labour Left in the early 1970s, notably by Mr Tony Benn. It led to the resignation of Lord Jenkins in 1972 from the deputy leadership of the party.

Mr Major now finds himself in virtually the same position as Lord Wilson before 1975. He wants us to remain in Europe but, to maintain party unity, he has to make anti- European noises. Lord Wilson had his referendum on whether the voters wished to remain in Europe under the alleged 'new terms' (all great nonsense) negotiated by Lord Callaghan. It is unlikely that Mr Major will be able to offer any new terms additional to the opt- outs negotiated at Maastricht. The device is currently being commended by such diverse authorities as the Daily Mail and the Independent. But the only referendum posing an unambiguous question is whether we stay in the Community or take our leave.

There is another way out. Mr Major should try to get the UK expelled from the Community. The rational folk - the Lamonts, the Jays, the Shores - would say: 'Thank you very much.' But opposition to our membership of the Community is not wholly rational. (Nor, come to that, is support for it.) The immediate effect of a proposed expulsion would be that the xenophobic element now so strong in the Conservative Party would yell: 'Stop pushing Britain around. Who do you think you are? We won the war. We want to stay.'