The delusion of being earnest ...

David Heathcoat-Amory's resignation may be principled, but it will not achieve its purpose
Click to follow
The Independent Online
For a man who has the distinction of being the first minister to resign explicitly over the single currency, David Heathcoat-Amory has always been oddly shy of the limelight. Until he walked out the junior Treasury post of Paymaster General yesterday, he has never much courted publicity. He had been glad, after an unhappy spell at the Foreign Office, to retreat into the bowels of the Treasury to grapple with the mindbending intricacies of European budget negotiations and VAT. But once he had decided to go, back in May, he was deaf to entreaties to change his mind.

To understand why this will make Heathcoat-Amory such a hero on the Tory right, it's worth considering for a moment the contrasting case of David Davis, the other minister to throw a tantrum on Europe in recent weeks. Indeed, Heathcoat-Amory's resignation will lend further currency to the charge that Davis - who threatened to resign from his job as Minister of State for Europe in the Foreign Office, and is now staying put - acted more out of personal ambition than on a clear issue of principle.

The anti-Davis version is that he was advised that to advance into the Cabinet he needed to express his deep discontent to John Major by "throwing a wobbly". One persistent suggestion is that he took the advice too literally and that it came from Alan Clark, a patrician Tory with long experience of knocking on the Cabinet door - and whom he visited in Kent during his weeks of turmoil. He thought he could make a better job of running Agriculture than Douglas Hogg. And the last straw, amazing as such trifles seem to those outside the Westminster village, was the award in the Queen's Birthday Honours of a Privy Councillorship to David Curry, an able minister of the same rank and an ardent pro-European.

The pro-Davis version firmly rejects all this. He sought out Major only to express his frustration about the increasingly aggressive federalism of Britain's EU partners and the Government's failure, before the policy of non-cooperation, to make any headway in the beef crisis. He was partly talked out of resigning because it would have compounded the impact of Heathcoat-Amory's own departure, which was known to Major and had been hanging over the Government since May. And the story came out because of a black propaganda campaign by pro-Europeans intent on defending Hogg against widespread criticism over BSE.

But whatever the truth of the Davis affair, Heathcoat-Amory seems to have acted largely from motives of policy rather than personal ambition. It is not true that Kenneth Clarke offered him the job of heading negotiations on the preparation for European Monetary Union. In two attempts to prevent him going, Clarke did suggest his junior minister might have more influence over, and access to, the discussions on EMU being carried out by officials at the Treasury and the Bank of England. But to no avail. It is safe to assume, therefore, that by going where Davis feared to tread, Heathcoat- Amory thought he had a real chance of tipping the balance in favour of his most cherished objective: that of persuading Major finally to rule out a single currency in the next Parliament.

Despite the tremor he will cause by launching his campaign under the banner of the Bruges Group today, however, he won't succeed. The solemn pact the Cabinet struck in March to keep open the question of joining the single currency, shows every sign of holding. It's not merely that Clarke would go if the pact fell apart. It's also that Michael Heseltine and, at least as importantly given his own hostility to a single currency, Malcolm Rifkind, are robustly opposed to any attempt to re-open policy on monetary union before the general election. Three of Major's four most senior Cabinet ministers therefore accept the argument that Britain must not lose its influence over the planning of EMU, whether it eventually joins or not. What's more, it is utter fantasy to suggest that a Clarke resignation would not put the Government's survival at risk. A total of 20 ministers of state have already signed up to the pro-European Conservative Mainstream, an organisation that will hear a keynote speech from Douglas Hurd at its opening conference in September. Several of these might well follow Clarke out of the Government. And further defections to the Opposition from the pro-European backbench left could not be ruled out.

The one event that could change all that would be if Tony Blair decided to rule out a single currency. Right-wing Tories have shown an unhealthy fascination with last week's press hints that Blair might do just that. The more they are denied and Blair professes himself baffled by their provenance, the more they are intrigued. It's true that some quite prominent Labour frontbenchers will tell you privately that Britain is not yet ready for a single currency. Yet even if Blair did not accept all the arguments set out on this page by Giles Radice, he isn't going to rule out a single currency, however tempting the short-term advantage might be.

It's not simply that much of the City and industry, freed from any incentive to collaborate in the the Tories' sullen neutrality on the issue, might swing in favour if and when Labour wins the election. By blindly sacrificing in advance the option of joining EMU, Labour risks before it is even elected the very market credibility it has so painstakingly sought to construct. Labour is not going to force Major to change his mind. Heathcoat-Amory is the hero of the hour on the Tory right. But it may be Davis who in the end had the shrewder reckoning of what a brick wall he was beating his head against.