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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 May, 2003, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Tories find a surprise weapon

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Duncan Smith had Blair on defensive over Europe
He may be the quiet man of politics, but Iain Duncan Smith has suddenly found something he can shout about.

It is an issue which is causing serious and bitter divisions within the Labour government and one on which the Tories are speaking with one voice.

And the astonishing fact is, it's Europe.

This is an extraordinary statement and observers now regularly make themselves jump in surprise when they hear themselves uttering it.

But, with the exception of a few backbench dissidents, the Tories have put their in-fighting over Europe behind them.

At the same time the cabinet is deeply divided under two opposing flags - one held aloft by Tony Blair, the other being waved Gordon Brown.

And the Tories are revelling in it. Michael Howard could hardly contain himself as he pointed out that Downing Street had been forced to issue a statement, in effect, denying the two men had reached agreement on the euro.

Bad old days

And it's not just the euro that is causing the government trouble.

Iain Duncan Smith's demands for a referendum on the planned EU constitution hits a real chord with voters.

And on this issue, the opposition leader clearly had Tony Blair on the back foot during Wednesday's question time.

It is so surprising that it is worth repeating. After years of ferrets-in-a-sack squabbling, the Tories are united on Europe.

Euro-enthusiasts like Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine will bluster and warn that the message from their frontbench is now almost entirely negative and risks undermining the country's place in the EU and, as a result, its influence.

But, to the extent to which they matter any more, even they would find it difficult to deny that the bad old days of Tory splits on this issue are now behind them.

Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith is increasingly convinced that his party's overwhelmingly negative message on Europe is chiming with public opinion.

Hague fought anti-euro election
It has been a long haul for the Tory party and there have been some casualties along the way.

Former leader William Hague probably kicked it all off in the last general election campaign which he attempted - and failed - to fight as a referendum on the euro.

But he was still dogged by the Clarke-Heseltine camp.

Mr Duncan Smith took the decision on day one of his leadership to bury the issue. Tory MPs were under orders never to mention it for fear it would start the whole spat all over again.

But not only has the gag now been removed, Mr Duncan Smith has put the issue top of his agenda.

He and his team will lose no opportunity to speak on the issue.

A government decision to rule out a referendum on the euro will only give him more ammunition of the "let the people speak" variety.

Health warning

Indeed there was once a calculation in Downing Street that ruling out a referendum was a great idea because it would mean the Tory in-fighting would continue.

Once a poll was held, the issue would be decided and, as a result, neutralised.

That simply does not work any more.

However, this all comes with a huge health warning.

Mr Duncan Smith may well have re-shaped his cabinet into a Eurosceptic one, and that almost certainly reflects grassroots Tory opinion.

And the former so-called Euro-enthusiast big beasts may be lost in the undergrowth.

But the real test for all this will not come until a referendum campaign is under way and the splits are put back on public display.

Only then will voters see just how united all the parties really are.




SEE ALSO:
Analysis: Labour's euro split
12 May 03  |  Politics


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