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News Monday, 14 June, 1999, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
The Euro fallout
By Political Editor Robin Oakley

Credit where credit was earned. William Hague took several risks over the Tory pitch for the European Parliament contest and they have paid off, at least in the short-term.

It was a risk for the Tories to highlight European issues when the perception and the reality is that his party remains badly split on Europe. By stepping up the scale of his Euro-scepticism in general and of his antipathy to the single currency in particular, he risked provoking a counter-blast (which never came) from pro-Euro heavyweights like Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke.

And he risked also falling victim to a pincer movement from the UKIP on one end of the argument and from the pro-Euro Tories led by John Stevens on the other end.

Mr Hague was aided in his ability to take a clear stance by having held his party referendum on the single currency last autumn, so isolating the pro-Europeans in the party and making them reluctant to earn opprobrium for splitting the party during an election campaign.

And although Tory strategists admitted that the plug was not quite in the bath and that they were leaking some votes to UKIP and others the clear rallying calls of "Save the Pound" and "In Europe but not run by Europe" succeeded in pulling across votes from other parties. The Tories campaigned on a narrow front, kept it targeted and precise, and gained the benefit of Labour complacency.

Hague due credit

The media would have crucified Mr Hague if his party had failed in these elections: he is entitled to take the credit for an unexpected victory. One Central Office staffer told me: "When this campaign began William was probably the only person who believed we could even achieve level-pegging with Labour".

For a leader under the kind of pressure he has faced and with party morale as low as it was before the Euro contest there was ample justification in going for short term success and pleasing his activists even at the expense of creating future problems.

The problem for the Conservative leader is: Where now? For the most part he has been trying to tempt voters back to the Tories by offering a more inclusive party, a softer, gentler Conservatism acknowledging the major part played in many peoples lives by the public services.

There is a tension between that and his hard-line, right-wing Euroscepticism, which remains a gut instinct . The hardliners in the party will now tell him to go even further down the Eurosceptic line, perhaps even ruling out the single currency in principle.

But while he may have succeeded in energising his activists and bringing out the Tory core vote on a Euro-sceptic platform in a low poll there can be no guarantee that such an approach would work in a general election.

Tony Blair's problem

At the last general election, Europe was only ninth on the list of issues that mattered to voters. It may come higher up the list next time, but remains unlikely to be the major determinant of voting behaviour. And five out of six voters still want Britain to remain in Europe and could become nervous of a seemingly isolationist party, or one that can easily be presented as such by its opponents.

Tony Blair has almost the reverse problem. He has to decide whether to respond to the pro-Europeans and to the single currency enthusiasts by giving the leadership on the issue which he failed to do in the European Parliament campaign, to the anger of business leaders, his Lib Dem allies and the pro-Euro Tory "big beasts".

Notably he has to decide whether to line up next month with the likes of Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke at a Britain in Europe rally to start promoting the cause of the single currency or to start backing away from the issue and drawing out the timescale of possible British entry to give himself time to turn round public opinion.

If he comes out fighting, the Eurosceptic press will go for him. If he does not and puts the single currency question on the back-burner then the premium on his leadership qualities may evaporate.

The apathy effect

Labour fought a lacklustre campaign in the Euros. They made them a mid-term referendum on the government's performance, focussed on domestic issues, imagining that the government's continued high standing in the opinion polls and the prime minister's leadership, on display through the Kosovan war, would see them through. They did not even issue a separate manifesto for the European contest addressing European issues. In the event they have had a shock on more than just the Euro question.

Though Labour have that notional 20 point lead in the opinion polls (and remember the question is : "Who would you support in a general election if it were held tomorrow?) the Tories closed the gap to four points in the local government elections and soared ahead in the Euros.

Apathy was not confined to the European contest-fewer than 20% turned out to vote last week in the Leeds Central by-election for a Westminster Parliament seat.

Astute party strategists like Peter Hain have been arguing for some time that the party has been alienating the core vote by working too hard to please the swing voters fetched across from the Tories at the last election, that they have been obsessed with The Daily Mail readers at the expense of Mirror readers.

There is also clear evidence that while public opinion may have stayed pretty solid on backing the Nato efforts in Kosovo Mr Blair need not expect voters' thanks for Britain's high profile involvement in an always controversial affair.

The PR debate

It was Labour's worst setback under Mr Blair, the first nationwide contest since 1992 in which they have not come first. And it is too simplistic for the party just to seek a scapegoat in the person of campaigns director Margaret Beckett. She was not the ultimate source of the strategy.

There will also be a lively debate on the question of proportional representation. The Labour opponents of PR were all lined up to shout: "We told you so" and to insist: "So far but no further".

But that was on the basis of Labour's vote holding up and the party "giving away" seats from its comfortable European Parliament majority. In the event PR helped to save Labour's bacon. Under first past the post there would have been an even bigger triumph for the Tories.

Green breakthrough

The Liberal Democrats would have hoped to do better in their last campaign under Paddy Ashdown. In the event they have lost a seat in their South West heartland and have not even secured as many overall as they would have done if the 1994 seats were simply redistributed on a PR allocation.

They are blaming Tony Blair's timidity for the result, but they too were nervous of making it an all-out contest on European issues, using much of their campaign time to accuse the Government of not doing enough on health and education.

They were resigned to some problems as the most obviously pro-European party in a contest which highlighted Euroscepticism , thanks to Mr Hague, but had hoped for a better showing. Their consolation is that poll evidence shows that they can count on a showing at least five points up in a general election.

There were highly significant breakthroughs for the Greens, with their two seats, and the UKIP, who won their three despite being almost totally ignored by the media during the campaign.

The GM foods issue came at a handy time for the Greens, who share with UKIP an opposition to the single currency. The 20% or so of the vote achieved by those not voting for Labour, Tory or Liberal Democrats is a reminder to us all that with PR we have entered a different age of politics.

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