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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Bosses prepare for euro battle
Chris Gent
Chris Gent: advocates pro-euro stance
By BBC News Online's Mike Verdin

Before the last general election Chris Gent, chief executive of Vodafone, signed a letter urging Britons, for business' sake, to vote Conservative.

This week he signed a new petition, embracing the single European currency, so distancing himself from current Tory policy.

The significance of Monday's letter, however, was not in its demonstration of wavering political allegiance, but that it was drawn up at all.

For however much the Conservatives have attempted to push the euro up the pre-election agenda, they had failed, until Monday, to win a reaction from business.

Executives who have spent years forming pro- or anti-euro alliances, supporting pressure groups such as Britain in Europe (BiE) or Business for Sterling, in recent weeks had kept opinions holstered.

Low profile

Business for Sterling, for instance, was mentioned in more newspaper articles in January, February, even last May, than in the past four weeks, a survey of BBC archives reveals.

Key members of Business for Sterling
Rodney Leach, chairman, Matheson
Sir Stanley Kalms, chairman Dixons
Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman, JCB
Luke Johnson, chairman. Belgo
John Ritblat, chairman, British Land
Yet it is an achievement the organisation and its anti-euro partner group, New Europe, might view with some satisfaction.

"We decided when we were formed two years ago that we would not campaign during the election," New Europe director Janet Bush said.

"We are a cross-party group. We did not want to get involved in party political elections."

Pro-euro lobby group Britain in Europe (BiE) would probably say much the same if BBC News Online could gain an official quote on the group's falling profile. Which BBC News Online cannot.

A BiE insider said that the organisation, as a single issue pressure group, considered itself better off avoiding the election fray.

"We are not in the same position as, say, Age Concern, which covers a range of issues. We feel people might get bored of us repeating ourselves."

The have-a-go spirit which characterised the 1997 election, when single issue campaigners on subjects such as abortion or fox hunting gained blanket coverage, is signally absent this time round.

As are the obvious splits within political parties on the euro debate.

Conflict avoidance

Indeed, one advantage for the self-imposed silence of the euro pressure groups is that it relieves pressure on the politicians who will fight their corner after the election.

Frank Field
Frank Field: one of New Europe's Labour backers
Members of Britain in Europe, which has placed election candidates "out of bounds", include Kenneth Clarke and Ian Taylor, who have been marginalised within the Conservative Party for their pro-euro views.

By being spared euro defence duties, Messrs Clarke and Taylor avoid the need to make the dangerous choice between party or BiE line ahead of the election.

On the anti-euro side, a campaign of silence allows politicians such as Frank Field to reconcile membership of New Europe with that of a euro-leaning Labour Party.

The strategy also spares campaign groups the risk of becoming associated with a single, potentially unsuccessful, political party.

Pro-euro campaigners in the Labour camp are reported, in 'Operation Flyover', to have guaranteed silence over the currency for fear of damaging the party's voter appeal.

Business divisions

Not that it is just politicians who are split over the issue.

Key Britain in Europe members
Lord Marshall, chairman, BA
Adair Turner, vice chairman, Merrill Lynch
Niall Fitzgerald, chairman, Unilever
Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive, WPP
Lord Haskins, chairman, Northern Foods
Business groups such as the Confederation of British Industry and British Chambers of Commerce blame divisions among executives for a failure themselves to take a lead on the euro.

"Our members are split pretty evenly on the issue, so we do not feel it is up to us to take a stand," said BCC spokesman Malik Thahid.

The Institute of Directors, meanwhile, revealed a less eager spirit among captains of industry.

"I do not really think the euro is a really big issue for business at the moment," IoD spokesman Richard Taylor said.

"Businesses are concerned with red tape, taxation, regulation."

Bolt from the blue

Monday's letter to The Times, which was signed by a former Conservative minister besides Mr Gent, was, in terms of surprise as well as politics, a bolt from the blue.

Signatories of Monday's letter
Anthony Nelson, former minister, vice-chairman of Citigroup
Michael Bishop, chairman, British Midland
Chris Gent, chief executive, Vodafone
Nicholas Brookes, chief executive, Spirent
Nick Scheele, president, Ford Europe
Christopher Tugendhat, chairman, Abbey National
Martin Broughton, chairman, BAT

All signed as individuals

It may not have received the publicity the signatories would have liked.

But it is significant in that it represents the opening salvo of a battle to come.

Pro-euro unions such as the GMB and AEEU are thought to be preparing big post-election campaigns in favour of the euro.

The 'no' campaign, meanwhile, backed by New Europe and Business for Sterling, is "ready to campaign" against the euro from the day after the election, Janet Bush said.

"We have been working non-stop since we were launched."

The great British euro debate will not end - whoever enters Downing Street after the election.

And from 8 June, battle will be joined by captains of UK industry, opinions unholstered, colours pinned to pro- or anti-euro masts.

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