Symbolic battles are fine - if you win

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SO THINGS don't look as bleak as they did last week. A diplomatic cold war between Britain and the continentals is, it seems, sliding off the Conservative Party agenda. But if this morning's Cabinet takes Douglas Hurd's advice and grabs the deal on offer it will have paid a high price for a small concession - a voting compromise which does not measure up to last week's posturing.

Mr Hurd has not uttered the words 'or I shall be obliged to resign'. But he has thrown his considerable weight around over the past 24 hours, testing his authority over colleagues in an exercise which has almost certainly saved John Major's administration from blocking the expansion of the European Union and then charging into the European election campaign on a crudely nationalistic bandwagon. All that is well worth having. The price is that the Government is only just squeaking through a crisis it ought to have avoided and which, at best, has further diminished Mr Major's authority.

The Prime Minister and his closest allies in Cabinet were badly hurt by the attacks on them as fair- weather Europeans last week. But if they did not intend to whip up the nationalism of the anti-Maastricht wing of the party, it was a display of extraordinary verbal ineptitude for which they will pay in tarnished reputations on the Tory benches.

The Foreign Secretary, meanwhile, has swallowed his frustration and brokered a deal inside the Government that ought to hold together this morning. His crucial conversations yesterday were with Kenneth Clarke and David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, both of them strongly against a compromise for departmental reasons. Before Mr Hurd spoke to Mr Clarke, the atmosphere in the Foreign Office was decidedly tense. Around Whitehall the whisper was that Mr Hurd would resign if he could not sell his compromise.

Even though the threat was never explicit - 'you save the nuclear threats for the big wars,' said one old diplomatic hand - it was taken seriously by the centre-left in the Cabinet. By late morning, the old pro-European axis had reasserted itself and swung behind Mr Hurd. At the Foreign Office the mood lightened, and well before Mr Hurd went into the Commons he knew both what he was going to say to the Cabinet and that he had big guns lined up for compromise. That knowledge helped him to put in a performance which boosted the prospects of the party faithful swallowing the deal. As a demonstration of grace under pressure, it was impressive. The Government front bench began to relax as his gentle, self-deprecating swatting of the Opposition continued. Just as revealingly, Peter Lilley was stony-faced.

But given Mr Major's rhetoric last week about standing up for principles and making others compromise about the blocking minority of 27, the case for this deal is a thin one. Mr Hurd rested on the argument that this is only an interlude before the 1996 summit, when the whole question of the number of votes for each country and the blocking minority is reopened, provoking a battle which will hugely overshadow this. Between then and the accession of the new EU countries, there will be delays and searches for new deals before the smaller minority is outvoted.

All true. But to the question: 23 as the blocking minority, or 27? The answer is clearly 27. This is not what Mr Major seemed to think he could get a few days ago. Though the Commons reaction was subdued as MPs tried to work out what the Cabinet would do, no one I talked to among right-wing Tory backbenchers afterwards believed Mr Hurd's compromise was worth a thing. It was just another bump of the anchor along the bottom as the centralist tide flowed on.

Thus there was much grumbling about being marched up to the top of the hill, much derision directed at Mr Major. The potential rebels were heading off for private meetings about their tactics should the Cabinet rally behind Mr Hurd. The hostility was not confined to the anti-Maastricht mob: a senior pro- European summed up the deal: 'What Douglas has done is to come back with a fig leaf which is just large enough to cover the Prime Minister's modest private parts.'

Nor was it clear last night that the Government would get through today's decisions without further loss. When Tim Renton, the former Chief Whip, lobbed Mr Hurd a verbal bouquet in the Commons, the Foreign Secretary replied: 'I think congratulations are a shade premature.' And several ministers had expressed private confidence that the Cabinet would not go for compromise, shortly before Mr Hurd made it pretty clear he thought they would. Anti-Maastricht MPs were speculating anew about resignations, though with the slight self- mockery of men who have been disappointed in their heroes before.

On the broader picture, it is worth recalling that much of this voting argument is nonsense anyway. On many of the most sensitive issues for the British government this country is in a minority of one, and was always unaffected by the proposed change. But on other issues that matter to Mr Major, including reform of the agriculture budget and the extension of European free trade, it would actually be in his interest to have the higher blocking figure of 27 votes which Mr Hurd was instructed to try to stop. A few issues, including some environmental ones, come in the middle and are affected.

But for the most part this has been a symbolic struggle with more meaning for the Tory party's entrail-readers than the real world. Symbolic battles are fine, so long as you then symbolically win them. But this brief strut and hurried retreat has been inglorious. Mr Hurd seems to have limited the damage, but even he has downgraded the potentially disastrous to the merely ridiculous.