The sound of squeals from a Euro-snare

Yesterday's debate put some ground between Blair and Major. And one of them will suffer for it
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The Independent Online
A trap snapped shut. Tony Blair, by coming off the fence on the single currency, has taken a huge gamble. He is now firmly and publicly on the side of European Unionism, chief enemy of Europhobes everywhere. He did what John Major dared not do, and then mocked the Prime Minister half to death for his caution.

Yesterday's was easily the best parliamentary performance by the Labour leader thus far and has surely achieved its ends. These were, first, to portray himself as true leader, a man of decision, and the Prime Minister as a prevaricating office-holder; and, second, to sharpen the apparent differences between Labour and the Conservatives over the British national question.

Five questions Blair asked of Major, and five questions Major refused to answer. At the core of Blair's attack was an impossible choice for the Prime Minister. Did he agree with Kenneth Clarke that it was possible to have monetary union without political union, or with Michael Portillo and Jonathan Aitken that it wasn't?

Was this a constitutional question or wasn't it?

The Prime Minister, unwisely, sat mum as Blair tossed him quotations from his own Cabinet and asked him whether he disagreed with them or not. Unwisely, because the final quotation was one he had made himself, allowing the Labour leader to conclude: "I find it odd that you can't agree with your Chancellor of the Exchequer. I find it strange that you can't agree with your Employment Secretary. I find it unbelievable that you can't agree with yourself.''

Which comment was, of course, unanswerable itself and gave Blair the best 10 seconds he has had in the House of Commons in his career.

Blair, then, was able to make clear his own support in principle for a single currency - if the economics are right and if there is popular consent. This will enable Tory Central Office to portray him as a federalist maniac at the next election. It will infuriate some Labour leftists and older anti-Europeans. It is hardly risk-free.

But on the other hand, it allows him to offer the British voters that promise of utterly clear, uncompromising and self-certain leadership we seem (funny lot that we are) to yearn for. He was implying that if a Labour government was riven by arguments on Europe he would not make the choice that Major made in 1990 and try to play both sides off against the other, but would demand loyal support for his own view.

This is a theme that Blair has hinted at many times before, but has rarely put so baldly and publicly: he was saying to Major, in effect: "I am Margaret Thatcher and you are Harold Wilson.'' The Tory party heard him, and glimpsed some truth in that, and didn't like it much.

John Major, by contrast, only came really alive when defending the notion of compromise. "I make no apologies for deciding - as an act of principle, in the interests of this country - THAT WE SHOULD NOT MAKE SUCH A DECISION,'' he roared. He was (to misquote Churchill) resolutely irresolute, firmly fluid, immutably flexible, stubbornly open-minded, and absolutely certain only that he wasn't.

This is not the stuff of which political leadership is fashioned. So I heard the sound of the trap closing, and someone screaming, and then I shut my notebook. That was that.

But was it? It is sure that Blair had the victory in the debate. To the ambassadors lined up above in the public gallery, the Labour leader must have sounded like a clear voice of reason and sense. To many of his fellow citizens he will as well.

But there are two problems which the great political clash obscured. The first is that Major's complicated, involved and sometimes mealy-mouthed explanation of his European policy represents at least some plain common sense. And the second is that, as between Major and Blair, the policy difference is far less than it seems.

Major has, quite clearly, had his own Europeanism shaken by the experiences of office. He hates the self-interested and sometimes shabby national bargaining, draped in the colours of principle. He resents the way Germany and France gang up on Britain and stitch things up between them. And he is deeply, genuinely sceptical about the single currency.

But, he thinks ... "well ... you never know ... it might work. They might be right. Is it possible without a single European government? Dunno.''

Given the pompous self-certainty on all sides about the European currency, the faith in some parts of the City and the party that it is utterly essential and the conviction among other businessmen and MPs that it would be a catastrophe, it is a remarkable fact that one of the very few people to be conscious of his human fallibility on this issue is the Prime Minister himself. Yet it is so.

It is terribly cautious and English and, in political terms, humble. But that is probably what most of the Island Race, pinned down in bars, and having been forced to listen to the complexities of the matter, would say, too.

Furthermore, if you strip away the rhetoric, it isn't hugely different from Blair's position. Blair was also trying yesterday to see whether he could push Major further in an anti-European direction, to the point where the Prime Minister himself started to sound like one of the "bastards''. In that, at least, he failed - and rightly, because the distinction between the parties isn't that great.

Both leaders say that economic convergence is hugely important. Both hint that they would contemplate a referendum first. Both stress that nothing is imminent. Both agree that there is no absolute constitutional block on going into a single currency if it looks economically sensible.

And both, of course, have divided parties. One of the great bonuses of this European debate is that we are starting to get past the pious hypocrisies of party unity and delve into real arguments.

That leaves the constitutional matter. Major, remarkably, described it as dancing on a pinhead. Well, it's a bit more important than that. But both men know that when voters consider monetary union, they will think about their wallets and jobs, not about the rights of Westminster.

In the end, the great difference is one of leadership style: Blair has decided to try to shape opinion and Major is keener to watch it and follow it. These have always been the two great options confronting any democratic politician. What happened last night, above all else, was that the contrast was sharpened and accentuated by both of them. It has hardened the two caricatures and helped to set the terms for the next election. From now on, the equation Labour-European, Tories-sceptic, will be easier to make. That is a trap and one of the leaders will be maimed by it. And I think I know who was screaming. But even from the Press gallery, we couldn't be absolutely sure.