Strange, then, that it was so utterly denied by Mr Major himself in the Commons yesterday. Was this merely been an example of collective wish-fulfilment by the Conservative press? Or a misguided briefing? Or a kite being flown?
It is hardly a secret that John Major would like to come out as Sterling's true defender. He has been engaging in ever more frantic private semaphore on the subject for months. Things have not yet quite reached the stage where the First Lord of the Treasury is hanging around bus-stops, hissing to bemused passers-by that he's against the single currency, or tramping down Oxford Street with a sandwich board. But he's tried almost everything else.
Most of the parliamentary party and its supporters in the country think that a strong anti-EMU line is about the only thing that could save the Conservatives at the polls. And everyone knows Major wouldstick with Sterling if he won the next election. The desire to speak this truth is almost uncontainable.
The only reason he hasn't gone forcefully public is the presence of that seemingly immovable object in the Treasury. A Clarke resignation would bring the Government down. So Major and his people confine themselves to private grrrs, stage whispers, nose- taps and broad winks.
Hence, I think, this week's high farce. There is a thin membrane between what ``everybody knows'' the position to be; and what it is officially. That membrane is bulging and - with every confident press briefing - beginning to tear. But what is obvious cannot be admitted. There are some truths so dangerous that they can only be discussed off the record.
This position is not going to help Major's hoped-for revival in the polls. None of his nodding and winking will help. It makes him seem shifty, rather than patriotic. No wonder he is irritated by Clarke, the immovable European object. No wonder the Eurosceptics accuse the Chancellor of single-handedly holding the rest of the Government hostage: bad for the party; bad for the country.
In fact, Clarke is about the only cool-headed and strategic player left. He is guarding a flank which the Tory party needs for its survival. For this debate is no longer primarily about the single currency. It has moved on with astonishing speed. In the course of this year alone - and 1996 will go down as a year of huge importance - anti-federalists have shifted the argument from EMU to the very future of Britain in the EU.
``Renegotiate'' is the sophisticated battle cry; but it can be demotically translated as ``get out''. And on that, at least, the Tory right agrees with the continental federalists themselves, who now think London is virtually ruling itself out of a European future.
The anti-federalists are not being malign in changing the question, so much as logical. If the single currency is the lock-in mechanism for a fully federal state, with its own legal system, security structures, police force and government, and perhaps eventually with its own language too (almost certainly, strangely enough, that would be English), then it is the whole project, not simply the lock, that needs to be argued about.
So what, in these circumstances, should decent, patriotic but pro-European politicians do? The first thing is, create time and space for serious thought about the options facing us. That requires a far harder look at the Europe of the future than before.
It would not be a bad idea for Britain to be outside a highly-regulated, centralised, undemocratic and unstable Germanic superstate. But it would be a very bad idea for us to cut our political links with a decentralised, free-trading and tolerably loose union of European nations - our nearest trading block, the part of the world whose politics have always affected ours and, not least, our cousins in history.
Conservative right-wingers are crusading on the basis of parliamentary sovereignty and geography. The political centre has always known that the more sensible arguments revolve around democracy and prosperity. These are not easy. They may not even be resolvable. Could a single currency be arranged in a way that allowed different fiscal policies? Can a Euro- parliament, with massive constituencies and virtually no press coverage, put down roots among the people?
But these are the arguments worth having. They are about Europe now, a place where many borders have virtually disappeared, where the middle classes, at least, feel at home in different countries and where most governments are pursuing roughly similar policies, not because of bureaucratic coercion, but because they inhabit the same mental world, with similar constraints and dilemmas.
If we really want to break from that, then there will be penalties as well as the undoubted benefit of living our lives under the absolute power of the likes of Michael Howard, Michael Portillo, Bill Cash and Dame Olga Maitland. We will be unable to influence any shift towards a more hostile trading and business climate on the continent. We will endlessly be affected by rules and decisions that our politicians learn about in their morning newspapers.
These are choices worth keeping open and discussing. Yet, in its headlong rush to wrap itself in the Union Jack, the Conservative leadership, spurred on by the keyboard Wellingtons in the media, has been trying closing them off.
For the party of business and of pragmatism, this is astonishing. Mr Major probably thinks that if he wins the election, he can steer the Tories back to a pragmatic, mild pro-Europeanism. But since he has been running before the wind (an offshore Nor'westerly) since 1992, why should anyone believe he could change direction after 1997?
Clarke may look politically weak - isolated in his party, unpopular with his natural supporters in the press. But in fighting to keep Britain's options open, and in recognising the dangers of the anti-European ratchet, he is doing his party a great service. And, unlike so many of his self- censoring cabinet colleagues, he has one great advantage. He can say, quite openly, what he thinks.
- More about:
- British Cycling Federation
- European Parliament
- Foreign & Commonwealth Office
- Oxford Street (London)