The unthinkable is no longer incredible

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THE importance of what is happening at Bournemouth cannot be overstated: for the first time in a generation, the idea of withdrawal from the European Union is being aired by mainstream politicians. The nationalist right of the Tory party thinks it has the pro-Europeans on the run and, on the surface, the right is right.

There was a new note in Douglas Hurd's speech to the conference, a mixture of anger and frustration. He sees himself as the party's tutor in reality, a pedagogue on behalf of the world outside the conference hall. It, the party, recognises his class. Even the more nationalistic conference speakers refer to his authority and patriotism, and mean it. But their admiration seems not to extend to his European thinking. The lust for Union Jack politics grows perceptibly. Sometimes, I wonder how much more he will take. Sometimes, I guess, so does he.

Norman Lamont's speech was the first time rejectionist arguments about European Union, which have been being advanced privately for months by members of John Major's government, have been publicly heard from a leading Conservative. If this was sour grapes from a sacked politician, as the left said, then it was sour grapes trampled and fermented into a heady brew: if this was yesterday's man, as Hurd implied, then yesterday's man believes he is singing the song of the future. That song is a passionate and aggressive refutation of the government line that there can be a compromise between nationalism and the EU and that a new consensus is being won in Europe by Mr Hurd and the Prime Minister.

Just getting a calm-sounding assertion of the possibility of leaving the Union, having that argument out in the open, changes things a little. It is another unmistakeable click of what Lord Howe calls the ratchet of Euro-scepticism. John Major and his mainstream supporters thought that by moving the argument to the gobbledegook of variable geometry, the anti-Europeans could be anaesthetised. They were wrong. The possibility of withdrawal or of a looser association has moved from the secret fantasy world of fringe politicians to an idea that challenges the imagination of the Tory party.

So it is fitting that the argument between Hurd and Lamont is about reality. Hurd said: 'This is not a debate between Britain on the one hand, and 11 partners on the other. There is no occasion for mock heroics or self-pity.' Lamont said: 'We deceive the British people . . . if we claim that we are winning the argument . . . the 11 other members want a European Union that is a European state.'

In the credibility contest, the Foreign Secretary, being in office and with a record that impresses the party, starts far ahead. Hurd's case for the new EU, that enlargement and a rethinking of the old centralism on the continent is rendering the starkness of the Lamont analysis out of date, is shared by most observers. Yet when Lamont attacks Major's belief that a single currency won't happen as wishful thinking, most reasonable people would agree with him. He has some good arguments and it is no good pretending otherwise.

Nor is it sensible to pretend they don't matter. To wander about the Tory conference is to get the strong impression that the anti-EU Tories are on a roll. Major made a strongly nationalistic speech to the Tory agents on his first night. Pro-European meetings were sparsely attended, while Lord Tebbit, Lamont and the tycoon-politician Jimmy Goldsmith are the biggest names on the fringe. The Conservative press is leaning strongly to the nationalist end of the argument and if, as Tory grandees fear, the party one day breaks, it is all too clear who will comprise the right- wing Conservative National Party.

Up to now, the European moderates have sturdily refused to be panicked about any of this, assuming that what they regard as the 'madness' of their nationalist colleagues would not spread much. It is beginning to look as if they have made a serious error, and cabinet ministers are among those who have finally decided they must fight back. Very quietly, serious fund-raising has begun in the City and among business groups before the launch of a pro-European campaign and think-tank. Its supporters are expected to be Lord Howe, Kenneth Clarke and John Gummer. 'We need to establish City and industrial networks to counter the people financing the sceptics,' said one of those involved.

It won't be easy to turn the mood in the party, but it won't be impossible. The anti-EU brigade is excellent at publicity and news management, and has more quotable and vivid figures. In the old phrase, it has been making the political weather. But it is deeply divided. There is the fundamental split between free-traders such as Thatcher and protectionists such as Goldsmith. There is the divide between those who claim the anti-centralist argument is going their way across the Continent, such as Bill Cash, and those, such as Lamont, who say that there is no serious brake on Continental centralism. And there are looming personality clashes between would-be leaders of the Great Cause.

Thus far, in Tory terms, the anti- EU politicians have been allowed a virtual free run 'Ignore them and they'll go away' has been the general instinct. But it isn't working and it won't work, not least because the Prime Minister is reluctant to lead his pro-European colleagues. Business leaders who have calmed themselves by reflecting that Britain's involvement in the EU will be safeguarded by Blair have now to consider the possibility that some dramatic Conservative action at the 1996 Inter-governmental Conference will have pre-empted the election debate.

Earlier this year, John Major told the Commons that it would be 'unthinkable' to leave the Union. Not so, said Lamont yesterday: 'this attitude is rather simplistic'. On that, he is obviously and literally right. Withdrawal may be wrong and damaging, but it is no longer unthinkable. It is being thought out loud, all over this town.