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25 October 1999

How the Tories went Eurosceptic

The Conservatives have stumbled into a hardline position on Europe, while Labour sticks to a policy

By Steve Richards

William Hague is about to mount his truck and head for the streets of Britain. The pro-Europeans have nervously and tentatively been seen together on a London stage for the first time. Let battle commence. At last, the course of the British debate on Europe has been set.

Or has it? How exactly did the Conservatives become the anti-Europe party? And how anti-Europe are they? After all, as recently as April 1997, during the general election campaign, the official party policy was not to rule out immediate entry into the single currency. This position was devised to keep Kenneth Clarke on board. Yet after the election, Clarke revealed that he had never believed that immediate entry was a realistic option in any case. The Tory policy on the euro thus broke all records: not a single member of the party believed in it.

Then Hague became leader. He began by ruling out entry to the euro for the “foreseeable future”. This formula delighted the pro-Europeans in his shadow cabinet and the giants, such as Clarke and Michael Heseltine, watching in the wings. The policy was hardened only as a result of a panicky misreading of the government’s position in October 1997.

Senior ministers had clumsily leaked the information that they were ruling out entry during the present parliament. The Tory Eurosceptics were furious that the government had suddenly, they suggested at the next shadow cabinet meeting, acquired a more sceptical policy than the Tories’. This was a misreading of the government’s intention at the time, which was to clear the decks in the first term, but to prepare quite actively for early entry in the second term. Nevertheless, Hague and his shadow cabinet decided to trump Tony Blair and Gordon Brown by ruling out the single currency for the following parliament as well. If you say one parliament, we will say two. So there! For the sake of party balance, Hague would not go as far as some of his advisers wanted. He would not rule out the euro for ever.

Some of the influential figures on Hague’s front bench are almost openly defiant of this compromise. At public meetings, John Redwood states that everyone knows his position on the euro (in the leadership contest he ruled it out for ever) but tells his audiences that “they should not press William” as he had given them what they wanted for a few years.

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Now the question has widened: would the Conservatives go as far as taking Britain out of the European Union? In the run-up to this month’s party conference, internal Tory polling suggested most voters still did not associate the party with any policies, even on Europe. Strategists at Conservative Central Office concluded that their ubiquitous, meaningless but successful sound-bite – “in Europe, not run by Europe” – needed more substance. So they dreamed up the proposal for a flexibility clause to be negotiated in the first EU treaty under a future Conservative government. In spite of all the fiery rhetoric, this was the only new policy relating to Europe unveiled at the party conference. The sound-bite came first; the policy followed four months later.

But the flexibility clause turned out to be very flexible indeed. Immediately after Hague’s speech, it became apparent that it went too far, even for the Eurosceptic press. The Sun‘s highly influential political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, declared on the BBC that he considered it to be too anti-Europe. In an editorial, the Times argued that, while the Conservatives were right to oppose the single currency, they were now making demands that implied withdrawal from the EU.

Suddenly, officials at Central Office were taking a different line. “We are not talking about renegotiation in the same way Harold Wilson negotiated our terms of entry in the mid-seventies,” said one. “When John Maples [the shadow foreign secretary] talked about renegotiating the Treaty of Rome, you have to remember that every new treaty is effectively a renegotiation of the Treaty of Rome. Tony Blair renegotiated the Treaty of Rome in Amsterdam. The new flexibility clause obviously wouldn’t cover the core areas. We wouldn’t do anything to damage the single market. Of course, we don’t want to pull out altogether, but you don’t go into negotiations with other European leaders with your hands held up in surrender at the beginning.”

In other words, the Conservatives have acquired a new policy, which could either amount to almost nothing or amount to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, according to how you read it.

In reality, the latter option is not remotely on the agenda, at least as far as the present leadership is concerned. But at least it has managed to harden its anti-Europe rhetoric. It has also improved its relations with the Eurosceptic media. For the first time since the election, several newspapers are treating the Conservatives seriously. Hague had an hour-long meeting with Rupert Murdoch last week, the longest session they have had together since he became leader.

Tory strategists assume (almost certainly correctly) that the Sun will back Labour at the next election, but they are aiming for a different and realistic objective. From now until the election, they hope to be treated respectfully by the Sun. What wrecked Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, the Tories believe, was not the Sun‘s endorsement of the Conservatives at election times, but the relentless daily assaults they endured over long periods. They are confident Hague will not get such treatment. Hague’s anti-Europe tour in a second-hand British lorry to protest about there being no British truck manufacturers, an obvious target for mockery, will be taken seriously, they believe, by Britain’s most influential newspaper.

So what of Labour? Its position was stated by Brown to the Commons in October 1997. He said that Labour had no political objections to joining the single currency, but would make economic considerations the only criteria. This was supposed to be a “historic” statement, though Blair had made the same statement in opposition in March 1995, saying that “there is no constitutional barrier to joining”.

So the government’s position on the euro has been in place for more than four years. Why, then, did it wobble so badly in the autumn of 1997? The answer is that the economic criteria are deeply subjective and are a front for the real policy, which is that the government will join when it can win a referendum. Even so, the policy that has endured for so long will not change. In spite of the obvious flaws, the architects, Blair and Brown (Robin Cook is sidelined on the euro and is rarely consulted), genuinely believe in it.

There have been some intense Downing Street discussions in which the two men have explored ways of finessing the policy. But always they come back to the same conclusion and they will continue to echo the words that “there is no constitutional barrier to joining”.

Yet the government has never explained why it sees no constitutional barrier. There have been no debates on the issue at Labour Party conferences. The euro has never been discussed by the cabinet, nor was it by the shadow team in opposition.

So with the euro already launched, the government has had a consistent policy on the economic implications for many years but has never publicly explored the political ones. The Conservatives are playing games with the political implications of Britain’s membership of the EU depending on their latest opinion poll findings and are heading for a British truck to evangelise against the euro. Throughout these exhausting manoeuvrings, most voters are relatively indifferent, which is why Labour’s messy pragmatism will have the edge at the election over the Tories’ more hardline alternative. But can Britain really join the euro in two years’ time when the debate is at such a primitive, ill-informed stage?

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