The divided Tories: a split is plausible

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For many years a favourite topic of the chattering classes was 'the realignment of the left'. There would be a big Social Democratic Party and a fringe socialist Labour Party, or maybe vice versa. Once, this was considered only slightly less interesting than house- price movements, or how much lemon juice to put in the houmus. Now, as the question of European Union continues to provoke intellectual turmoil among Tories, the possibility of the right eventually splintering is growing in seriousness.

What stopped the left realigning during the Eighties? Above all, Neil Kinnock, who made it his high purpose to save the Labour Party by forcing it to adapt itself to the climate of the time, which was the failure of socialist ideology. (I don't suppose he would put it quite like that.) Because the movement of ideas was so strongly to the right, distinctions on the left became blurred. Everyone was running in the same direction.

The situation on the right today has some similarities, but they do not go deep. John Major is the Kinnock of our day, in the sense that his high purpose is to keep his party from splitting. And most Tories, these days, are running in the same direction - away from Brussels.

But the argument among Conservatives in power in the Nineties is more serious than the argument among the Opposition in the Eighties. Whether one talks to ministers, backbenchers, Tory journalists or other hangers-on, one finds an intellectual divide that sometimes seems unbridgeable. If Mr Major fails in his purpose, or if the Tories fall from power, a break between the Thatcherites and the Tory Europeans is plausible.

It would, of course, be catastrophic for the Conservative Party, whose sense of self-preservation should never be underestimated. A realignment on the right may be intellectually logical. But the party leadership will do almost anything to prevent it happening. And that includes being ready to recast Britain's relationship with the rest of the European Union.

Earlier this week, I raised the idea of Britain leaving the EU - not likely, but something treated as a serious possibility by serious Tory politicians. They are not in the majority anywhere near the top of government but they are pushing hard, and growing in strength.

Now we can take this story further into the heart of the party. Most relevant ministers still believe that Britain can win the arguments against a deeper Union and in favour of more deregulation - 'it's all to play for in 1996'. But cabinet members who regard themselves as good Europeans are also now saying privately that the party must prepare itself for the possibility of losing those arguments. If so, they say, this country should withdraw, unapologetically, to the slow lane of a multi-speed Europe.

These ministers insist that Britain would not leave the Union, as the Thatcherites want. It would carry on with those parts which

it favoured. But it would leave others to go ahead with the deeper, tighter federation they apparently yearn for. Perhaps other new entrants, and eventually the new East European democracies, would join Britain in a looser outer ring.

This is an extreme version of the buzz-phrase 'variable geometry'. Rhythm-method Europhilia might be a better way of putting it.

This would have the huge advantage of uniting most of the Conservative Party, though it would infuriate the strongest pro-Europeans and cause despair in the Foreign Office. One senior Europhile minister told me that he could envisage going to the country on that basis, offering voters a choice of a federal, socialist Europe backed by Labour, or British independence in Europe under the Tories.

This mimics the hard-line Thatcherites. They warn: one day, we break the Union or we break the Conservative Party. To which mainstream ministers will retort: either we realign the Union, or we face a realignment of the right. The emphasis is different, the logic identical. The fascinating thing is that it comes at a time when political leaders on the Continent are talking in similar terms, though for opposite reasons. Enthusiasm for a single currency is reviving and federalist politicians are wondering whether a wider Union can work only if a core group of countries is linked more strongly.

Speaking in London this week, the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was unambiguous in his support for 'deepening' as well as widening. More provocatively, the French European affairs minister, Alain Lamassoure, has been hinting at a return to a Europe of the Six at the core of a wider arrangement, talking of 'new founder members'. The attraction for France is that it would allow the EU to expand eastwards, to second-class members, while still binding the Germans tightly in. But for Britain's beleaguered Tories, such talk also opens up a potential escape-route. There is, in short, a possible congruence of interest between British Conservatives and European federalists.

Now I reiterate, as earlier in the week, that Mr Major and his most senior ministers still hope to win the arguments against federalism. They may do so. Nor is the withdrawal option the only one being canvassed on the right. The Institute of Directors, which includes few unreconstructed socialists among its 50,000 members, yesterday launched its manifesto for the European elections. But it argued for a stronger centre, so that Europe fudged fewer decisions relating to business. This could be described as right-wing federalism.

So the arguments on the right are fractured, complex and still moving. But they are for real. And if it ever comes to a choice between a Britain evicted from the heart of Europe, or intense Tory warfare and 'the realignment of the right', then I think I know which way most senior ministers would go.