July 9, 2001
I do apologise for going on about this blessed Conservative Party leadership contest. I understand why many people must be bored with it. In fact, it is dreadfully boring. A recent televised debate was more a game of spot the difference than anything resembling debate. Of course, it was held by the state owned BBC, so the treatment of questioners was typically biased, with left wing questioners being indulged, and right wing questioners brushed off. The press even tried to make a story of the leading contender professing to have an "open mind" on the subject of legalising cannabis. Kremlinology, it seems, is alive and well.
The candidates seem to spend their time agreeing: "William Hague had a good campaign," "I don't believe that we should legalise drugs, yet," and the classic "We need to talk about schools 'n' hospitals." This was all very worthy and dull and made you realise why William Hague was not such a bad leader, considering all the alternatives. The very dreariness of their agreement was broken by Europe. First off was an Italian-American banker (no, that is not rhyming slang) who asked the five contestants "how much investment they were prepared to lose to keep the pound." It was rather ably punctured by Michael Portillo who pointed out that in fact Britain is doing rather nicely for inward investment. The banker was allowed to comment three times (in contrast no right wing questioner was allowed to comment on the answers he was given) and ended up making a fool of himself. The BBC producers must have been wishing that they had only talked to him before getting him to ask a question. If aggressive foreigners with poor arguments would persuade the UK to go into the Euro, the European Commission would have done it by now. However, the interest was that you actually had differing views among the candidates. Two, Michael Portillo and David Davis, were against it but were not "never men." Two, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Ancram were against the Euro on constitutional grounds. One, however, was for the Euro: Ken Clarke, the former chancellor.
Many things can be said about Ken Clarke. His links with the British fascist leader, Sir Oswald Moseley, and his youthful anti-Semitism. The unbelievably easy ride he gets from the press, a reason many Conservatives give for supporting him. His laziness. His arrogance. There is, however, one basic flaw he stands apart from the rest of the Conservative Party on an issue that they regard as central to their identity Europe. It may be sadly true that the Conservatives resembled, in Michael Portillo's memorable phrase "the pub bores on Europe," but the fact has to be faced that most Conservatives are Eurosceptics. Similarly, most British people are Eurosceptic. Therefore, Ken Clarke's election would lead to both a split in the party and the loss of the only issue on which the public seems to agree with them.
What is the point of a Conservative Party that is not eurosceptic? Any meaningful opposition to the Blair agenda involves moving away, not towards, the constraints of Brussels. You want less economic regulation? Too bad, Europe says you have to regulate. You want lower taxes? Too late, Europe has decided the "optimum level" of your taxes. You want to be tough on crime? Have you checked with the European Court of Human Rights? The franchise for cheer leading for the various policies of the European Union is already taken; Conservatives cannot thrive in that crowded market. A Clarke leadership would lead the Conservative Party to irrelevance, with the party tearing itself apart and the public tuning out.
Eurosceptics have placed a large amount of effort in the past few years in persuading the Conservative Party that a Eurosceptic platform would guarantee them success. They have largely succeeded, but to their surprise they have seen this tactic fail. The Conservative Party will now turn away from constitutional issues and look at bread and butter issues. This may be sad, and it may be unfortunate, but I am not going to waste any time chastising a major political party's desire for power. I might as well complain about mountains being full of rock. Eurosceptics now have to stop trying to persuade the conservatives that Europe is important, and try to persuade their potential electorate that it is important. Political parties live on three things: money, activists and votes. The Eurosceptic movement has made great strides in locating money (although some has been acquired unwisely more of that in a later column). The activists are coming out of the woodwork of their own accord. The problem is the votes.
It's not that Europe is popular with the electorate, it's not. The simple fact is that Europe is not important to most people. Once it is then the Conservative Party (and probably a post-Blair Labour Party) will start listening again. It is up to the Eurosceptics to show how important the issue of Europe is, and how far it affects them. Considering how far they have actually come already, this should be no problem. The people do not need to be convinced that the Eurosceptics are right, just that this is an important issue. And whatever they do, the Conservatives should not elect Clarke.
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