The euro debate is nearly won

A fascinating vignette: Bill Cash, former arch-anti-euro fanatic, now the shadow attorney-general, is heard complaining bitterly that media requests for interviews never reach him. He is almost prepared to believe his calls are being intercepted. David Davis, Tory chairman, laughs his conspiratorial laugh on hearing this, and nods approvingly. Yes, the Tories are quite determined that their hardline anti-euro nuts will be kept off the airwaves. Lady Thatcher blew that little plot, but her recent "why not pull out of the EU altogether?" contribution only served to illustrate the point. The Conservative leadership's awkward silence following her remarks revealed how much they are running scared on this issue.

So why does Tony Blair not see his advantage and get on with winning a euro referendum? His attitude has been universally written up as the product of cowardice, or at least nervousness, spiced with a bit of Gordon Brown's anti-euro bullying. Everyone is moaning at him: get on with it. And still he says nothing.

It is not surprising that frustration is rising. On both sides - pro and anti - large, well-funded campaigns were set up more than a year ago, in the expectation of a full-scale debate by now. Before the election, Blair even encouraged the pro-euro lot by sharing a platform with Tories such as Kenneth Clarke. The armies were lined up in full battle armour. The sun rose in the sky. Adrenalin surged. And . . . nothing happened. General-in-Chief Blair simply stayed in his tent and picked his nails quietly. When pro-euro campaigners and MPs, columnists and business executives murmur increasingly about Blair's cowardice, they are just like the front-line archers and spear-carriers wondering where the heck the general's got to.

And, indeed, time is running out. Let's take the likely timetable, assuming that Blair would want the whole issue over before the next election (last possible date: June 2006). No government likes to go to the wire, so let's assume spring 2005 is the desired date for the introduction of euro notes and coins. That would require a final decision on entry by early 2003 (assuming sterling would be expected initially to shadow the euro for two years).

This means a referendum would have to be held this autumn, or next spring at the very latest.

So where's the debate? Pro-Europeans regularly announce to their friends in the press that they are ready to start "making the case" loudly for the euro. Outriders for the project, like Charles Clarke and Peter Hain, make daring statements - suggesting, for example, that Britain's joining the euro is inevitable. But that is hardly debate.

It is being left to others to start the action. Recently, the Fabian Society published a fair-minded and comprehensive study of the cases for and against, arguing that few British citizens can honestly say they understand the issues involved. The Fabians' arguments come from the left of centre: there are equally compelling arguments to be put, on both sides of the euro divide, from the right.

So what would the outcome be? There has been one dry run, a short skirmish, of the battle to come. On 17 March, the BBC's Panorama organised the first big broadcast "euro debate", featuring Michael Howard and a team of people in favour of sterling on one side, and Roy Hattersley and a team of euro enthusiasts on the other.

In the studio audience in London, and scattered around the country in three other locations, were groups of voters, selected by the polling company ICM. Their job was to listen to the arguments and then cast their votes on three propositions. Would joining the euro damage Britain's economic interests? Would joining lead to a loss of sovereignty? Then, if a referendum were to be called, would they vote to join or not?

I have to declare an interest here - I was a member of Hattersley's team, and so must duly report that we knocked 'em for six. Actually, we lost. We were not, however, downhearted. The biggest cheers, when the results were announced, were from our side, for two reasons. First, because the margins were small compared to the usual polls - 48 per cent of the audience said they would vote against joining, compared with 45 per cent who would support it. But more important, the "yes" vote had gone up by 10 per cent.

A one-hour debate on the issues - and support had swung by 10 per cent. What could a couple of weeks of serious campaigning do? So why won't Blair start to lead the campaign, as many on my team hope and expect will happen? Even if Blair won't personally join in, where are his lieutenants? Panorama approached all the known leading pro-Europeans, from Charles Kennedy to Peter Hain and Patricia Hewitt, to ask them to lead the "yes" team. All declined to do so.

Cowardice? Confusion? Or perhaps this marks a return of Blair's fabled strategic mastery. For if you look carefully at the polls, you see a steady erosion in the hard anti-euro case and a gentle rise in people's acceptance that the euro is inevitable. This has happened without politicians. It has come about because the euro on the Continent has not caused mayhem, and it has not collapsed. Arguing against the euro has become a bit like arguing against the dollar. There's a sense of history moving - and everyone knows it.

More and more, it seems that Blair is indeed pursuing delay and silence to wear down his opponents - and that this is working. The angry chorus from the pro-sterling camp of "Come on, give us a referendum now" is a bit like the frustrated cries from an army that knows the longer the battle is delayed, the less chance it has of winning. Where's the debate? "Why start yet?" Tony Blair may be saying smilingly in his tent. "I'm winning already."

See Robert Peston, page 34