Magazine article The Spectator

The Stakes Are Appallingly High, Yet Few Tory MPs Realise It

Magazine article The Spectator

The Stakes Are Appallingly High, Yet Few Tory MPs Realise It

Article excerpt

From a Tory perspective, the New Year dawned in inspissated gloom. At most, there are four months left before the election, yet the party's political identity is still largely undefined. For long stretches of this Parliament, the Blairites have succeeded in driving the Tories to the margins of political debate, so that William Hague has barely been able to consolidate the voters who stayed loyal to John Major in 1997. Mr Hague would appear to have only one important electoral asset: the public's dislike of large majorities.

But the short term and the longer term are out of alignment. Though the Tories' immediate prospects may look bleak, that could rapidly change. For this general election is only the second most important test of public opinion to be held this year. The Tories' prospects look better for the more important one: the referendum on the euro.

The Foreign Office is now working on the assumption that the referendum will be held in September or October. The government favours an early date for two reasons. The first is to ensure that the transition to the euro is accomplished within one Parliament; it does not want to go into a 2005/6 election with sterling notes and coins still in circulation, thus giving the Tories an obvious battle-cry: `The last chance to save the pound.'

The second is to exploit Tory disarray. The Blairites hope to win this year's election by a sufficient margin to provoke a Tory leadership crisis. They would like to see the Tory high command spend the spring and early summer at one another's throats, so that whoever emerges - or survives - as leader goes into the referendum campaign with minimal authority. Those who are planning the government's campaign have absorbed the lessons of the 1975 European referendum, when it appeared as if all the, likeable and trustworthy politicians were on one side, all the wild and woolly characters on the other. If the Tory party were in a state of fratricidal confusion, the Blairites calculate that Messrs Clarke, Heseltine and Patten could seem much more persuasive than their notional party's nominal leaders. The government will do everything possible to keep the pound out of the election, while hoping to use the election to gain enough momentum to abolish it.

This is certainly the best chance of persuading the British people to vote for the single currency, but there are still formidable obstacles. Election victories do -not guarantee referendum results, as Labour almost discovered in the 1997 vote on a Welsh assembly. The Tories were exhausted and demoralised, especially in Wales, where they had lost every seat. The 'Yes' campaign seemed to have all the assets and all the leadership, yet the 'Noes' almost won. The polls suggest that it is the settled will of the British people to retain the pound; it is certainly the settled will of the Tory media to encourage them to do so. So the government could still be defeated in a euro referendum despite the Tories' weakness.

But that would be a foolish gamble for any anti-federalist Tory to take. Another Parliament out of office would be a blow, especially to a party which hates opposition. As long as the Tories could help to secure a 'No' vote, however, another four years of Labour need not be a disaster. Tony Blair is not Tony Benn.

So everything depends on the referendum vote. If Mr Blair were to lose it, his government would not instantly disintegrate, but it would lose all its political impetus while Mr Blair's own prestige would suffer a grave blow. Since the war, every government which has lost an election had already lost its authority. …

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