The tactic was wrong, and so was the timing

Refusing to have a debate on preparation for EMU until the last possible moment has blown up in Major's face
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The Independent Online
Richard Ryder, the last Chief Whip, seeing William Cash MP approach him in a Commons corridor two or three years ago, turned smartly through a door only to find it led to a broom cupboard. He hid there until Cash had passed. Dealing with Cash and his fellow obsessives on the Euro-sceptic right would at times try the patience of a saint. It is tempting to see the Government's obdurate refusal to grant their latest demand as simple determination not to be pushed around any more.

But it won't do as an explanation. For this time the sceptics had right on their side in insisting that Parliament should debate the current negotiations on European Monetary Union. They had a fresh cause in their sights a fortnight ago when documents dealing with negotiations on the "stability pact" that will underpin EMU were issued by one of the Commons committees that scrutinises European directives. It had been widely understood - and was explicit in the Maastricht Treaty - that discipline would have to be applied to countries which joined EMU, to ensure that they maintained the balance in their budgets which had qualified them for entry in the first place. Otherwise the credibility of the Euro as a sound currency risked being blown to pieces. But the new issue boiled down to this: could it be that this same central financial discipline might be applied to Britain even if it stayed out of EMU? And could a Britain outside the single currency even face being fined?

If the answer was yes - and the opinion of a lawyer called Martin Howe, much consulted by the Euro-sceptics, implied that it might be - the consequences would be explosive. The Tories who oppose EMU as an article of faith mostly do so for constitutional reasons - that Britain will be handing over the control of its economy to European institutions.

But if this discipline was to apply whether Britain was in or out of EMU then the British political economy would be surrendered to Brussels and Frankfurt anyway. Just as, on a smaller scale, the 48-hour week could be imposed on Britain even though it had opted out of the social chapter, so the economic choice of whether or not to run a deficit would be surrendered even though Britain was not an EMU member. What's more - and this certainly was not lost on the most ferocious Europhobes - it would mean the only logical way to avoid such external control would be to leave the EU altogether.

Now this fear - or for some, no doubt, this hope - appears to have been misplaced. Kenneth Clarke eloquently argued in the Commons yesterday that the treaty only required Britain, if outside EMU, to provide information on its own economic plans and performance in a way that would leave its "complete control over economic policy" intact. Even Martin Howe seemed to agree yesterday that the only legal obligation would be to "submit a programme rather than to follow a particular economic policy." All that Howe can muster is the rather lame conclusion that such an obligation "imposes strong pressure on us to pursue the policies laid down in the programme."

But that wasn't the point. The sceptics, backed by some of their pro- European colleagues, demanded a debate and were until, yesterday, refused. Yet these were real issues - and certainly worthier of a debate than a good deal of the mind-numbing subjects with which MPs frequently occupy their time. What's more, they went to the heart of public fears about Europe, which extend well beyond a few neo-Thatcherites striking postures for life after a Tory election defeat: that something is being transacted between European governments, including our own, which isn't quite decent to talk about openly.

Even those ministers who now say remorsefully that it would have been better to heed demands for a debate earlier say - perhaps from sheer force of habit - that after all it could have been held late at night when only fanatics and insomniacs would have turned up. Not in front of the children. Only after the watershed.

You don't have to be a Euro-sceptic to see that this argument won't hold. As it happens, the Government had a perfectly sustainable case, as Clarke effectively demonstrated yesterday. There was much less to hide than it had seemed. Indeed Clarke, despite being enemy number one for the sceptics, had made it clear, while not pressing for a debate, that he was quite willing to have one. It is, of course, now impossible to find anyone claiming authorship of the decision not to hold a debate even after a standing committee (last Wednesday) and a select committee (two days earlier) had voted for one. And practically impossible to find someone who doesn't blame someone else. As always, there is a lot of dumping on the whips. But well informed sceptics are convincing when they insist that the decision went right to the top.

The reason is surely a distorted electoralism. The budget, so the strategists argued, would help to concentrate minds on the economy, the one strength the Tories believe they have. To allow anything to get in its way - particularly a public wrangle about Europe - would have been to take the public "off message" in the hideous jargon of the wonks. Also, there may have been a fear that not just the sceptics but Clarke,too, would blow his top. As it happens, he was well behaved, emolliently promising John Redwood to strive for the "copper-bottomed" guarantees on the stability pact that Redwood sought. What happened, of course, was that the row blew up in the Government's face - threatening, precisely, to overshadow the budget. Which is a suitable punishment. For once doing the right thing would have been good tactics too.