The Tory right needs a change of battlefields

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The Independent Online
LOUD, headline-grabbing - and on the road to nowhere. The Tory right is dangerously overplaying its hand at Brighton. Only a couple of years after Margaret Thatcher fell, her followers are close to destroying themselves as a serious influence in the party. Their righteous crusade is forcing the middle ground to choose: whoever is not with them is against them. Most are against them.

Baroness Thatcher's latest intervention was perfectly timed. Had she not broken cover this evening, after the dullest day of the conference, the European argument would have lost tension and immediacy. The highly professional theatricals of Lord Tebbit's speech would have been half-forgotten well before John Major spoke. Instead, the story of the conference continues, seamlessly. She was always a good news-manager.

Away from the headlines, though, it is clear that the more passionately the right opposes the Maastricht ratification, the weaker it becomes. In the days immediately after the anti-Thatcher coup, much was made of the spirit of friendly unity in the Cabinet. It was held to be a peculiar strength of the Major style. But trawling the bars and receptions of Brighton, it becomes clear that the Cabinet is disunited. The most fervent Europhiles are in a bigger majority there than in the party as a whole. The hotter the Maastricht confrontation gets, the more Mr Major depends upon them. And the more isolated the right-wing minority in the Cabinet - Michael Howard, Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley - looks.

Meanwhile, Michael Heseltine, in magnificent, shameless form, is talking happily about industrial interventionism. Kenneth Clarke is gleefully putting the boot, or rather the Hush Puppy, into the Europhobes. (He has a man who supplies him with steel-tipped Hush Puppies.) And, despite the ferocity of the parliamentary battles ahead, both the Foreign Office ministers and the party whips are grimly self-confident.

The Europhile left is happy, in short, because it thinks it can polish off the Thatcherite tradition in the Conservative Party - so long as the battlefield is Maastricht. Ministers are talking about a six-month parliamentary struggle. If Foreign Office ministers clear their diaries completely, it could start as early as next month. But the more likely timing is from January to June. The success or failure of the Bill will probably depend on John Smith's readiness to keep his troops together day after day, night after night, opposing closure motions and so allowing a filibuster to succeed. Just imagine: a whole half-year of Kenneth Baker and Dennis Skinner exchanging long-winded courtesies. Could the art of the political column survive it?

If Labour does inflict this on the country, Mr Major will accuse Mr Smith of leading his party in another U-turn on Europe. Tory leaders guess Mr Smith could not take it - therefore, they calculate, the Bill will make it. The right will be exhausted - both bored and boring. At some point, Norman Lamont may move from the Treasury. If the job went to either Mr Heseltine or Mr Clarke, the right would be finished.

The Thatcherites need Mr Major to salvage their situation - which is why the savagery of their attacks on him is so inept. Their much cleverer strategy, and one that the cabinet-level right-wingers are now reconciled to, is to turn their attention to the ERM. Here is a serious and so far little-noticed battle taking shape, which looks more evenly balanced than the Maastricht conflict.

On the one side, the Foreign Office hopes that a slow process of re-education in the virtues of watching the exchange rate, then of managed exchange rates generally, will bring the domestic argument back to the virtues of the ERM. Parallel to that, the ERM would be being reformed and German interest rates would be falling, making the mechanism look more attractive. For political reasons, but with an economic fig leaf over them, Britain would rejoin.

Contrast that with the alternative, right-wing scenario. This finds the Government keeping well clear of the whole unholy brew of ERM and monetary union and pursuing instead the public-expenditure restraint and monetary targets that formed the centrepiece of early Thatcherism. Back to the glory years] Then, the prize of gaining the chancellorship for a right-winger, such as Mr Howard, would be well worth the passage of Maastricht.

Mr Major would prefer to go back into the ERM but could be persuaded to delay indefinitely. One senior member of the Government suggested yesterday that it might not be possible to deliver the Tory party. Far from the argument going pro- ERM, it would swing away: 'If the recession goes on grimly for another year, everyone will say: 'See, that's what the ERM experiment did to us.' But if the recovery comes, they'll say: 'Ah-hah] Look how well we're doing outside the ERM.' Either way, it will be hard, perhaps impossible, to persuade the party to go back.'

So the minister's argument went - and it is a pretty persuasive one. No matter how shrill the Lady sounds this morning, Maastricht is not the central question for the right. Only if the Thatcherites move adroitly from theatricals to the more serious politics of lobbying Mr Major on the ERM decision will they start to matter again. But so far, with a few exceptions, it looks as though they are too dazed by their own rhetoric to understand.