The hidden virtues of Mr Major

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The Independent Online
How well does John Major actually do when he bats for Britain in Europe? You might expect this basic question to be at the forefront of the Tory leadership contest. Instead, it is obscured by a debate that focuses on ideology rather than reality.

This week's Cannes summit was a poor guide to the Prime Minister's European batting average. The other EU leaders bowled him daisy hops and knocked over their own wickets in the dotty belief that this would help him at home. It would have been more helpful to the Prime Minister if they had bowled him a few bouncers and allowed him to play the Boy's Own paper's last man at the crease.

Despite his ineffectual image, Mr Major is a mean European negotiator. Every EU head of state concedes that he has a talent for the one-to-one, late-night poker games where the important Euro-decisions are won and lost. Britain continues to win important arguments with its neighbours. There have long been three fundamental issues - money, power and jobs - over which Britain's position has been different from that of its European partners. These continue to cause friction, but it is remarkable how, over the past five years, other governments have come to sympathise with the British view. Howls of pain over EU spending that once emanated only from London can now be heard in Bonn, Paris and the Hague. Likewise, British opposition to strengthening (ie further federalising) EU institutions is partly shared by Jacques Chirac. There are now echoes in Germany of British resistance to the creation of a uniform EU social policy.

Until the rise of the Euro-sceptics and the threat to his leadership, Mr Major steered a sensitive and largely successful middle course between the resolute negativism of his predecessor and the integrationist determinism of the more visionary EU members. He helped to secure an opt-out from the Social Chapter and Britain's right to avoid participation in a single European currency. But pragmatism, the very quality that he has tried to introduce, is precisely what his Conservative opponents detest.

As this fundamentalism has grown in influence, Mr Major has allowed himself to be manoeuvred into a corner - on the plans to reduce veto powers; on the plans to amend national voting rights; on the single currency. Douglas Hurd is right. Belligerence - a la Redwood or Portillo - damages British interests: it threatens to delay the extension of the EU to the former Communist countries. It reduces our chances of shaping the debate on the single currency along lines that will protect our interests, whether we get in or stay out. The model should be Geoffrey Boycott, wearing down the opposition, not the Sunday league approach of the Europhobes.