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Now Howard must make peace with the UKIP

Simon Jenkins

POSITION A. The British Conservative Party is revived. It is lean, mean and led from the front by a new man. The UK Independence Party with its 16 per cent poll share is a blip. Europe is not a swing issue with the electorate. The UKIP’s maverick voters will return to the Tory fold come a proper election. Tony Blair is on the run. The Opposition needs only to keep its head. The UKIP is a passing gadfly.

Position B. The UKIP has moved the earth. Half the electorate wants out of the European Union and Michael Howard has missed the bus. He has allowed the UKIP to escape the Tory coalition and win established party status. Local Tories are fiercely anti-EU, held in check only by a faltering loyalty to their London leadership. The UKIP could lose half its present strength and still wreck the Tories’ uphill struggle to election victory. Mr Howard must make peace with them or face humiliation and defeat.

At this point in the argument, the traditional pundit opens a drawer on his desk and, with tweezers, extracts a perfectly formed subjunctive or future conditional. He drops on to his prose “. . . the outcome remains to be seen” or “Mr Howard must choose . . .” or “only time will tell”. This column enjoys no such licence. It cannot retreat to the trenches of ambiguity. It must advance towards the guns of speculation.

The European elections left Labour and Conservative parties with a minority of votes cast between them and a surge in anti-European sentiment. This weekend several sorely wounded European leaders meet in Brussels to agree a new constitution. They mean to do so in flat contradiction to a rising fifth of the European electorate. If I were Mr Blair I would declare the constitution unacceptable and come straight home.

But what should Mr Howard do? Of course the Tories should never have allowed the UKIP to break free. All parties are coalitions. Keeping them together is the principal task of a leader. Macmillan and Wilson spent half their time shoring up coalitions. Margaret Thatcher did so too. John Major went through hell doing it. When Labour split in 1981 it stayed out of power for a decade and a half.

Mr Howard is holding aloof. He is relying on polling evidence that Europe is not important to the electorate, apparently ranking twelfth among “issues”. Yet it ranks high among local Tories and even higher among the party hierarchs. Mr Howard has adopted the Major-Hague-Duncan-Smith formula of half agreeing with both sides, of being sceptical but not to the last ditch. His line is to vote “no” in the forthcoming referendum and then seek a “renegotiation” . For some reason he wants above all to repatriate fisheries and overseas aid.

That has plainly not met the demands of UKIP’s 16 per cent of electors, most of them former Tories. I have visited constituencies in three areas in the past two months and found hardly one Conservative who does not sympathise with the UKIP’s policy of withdrawal, whether or not preceded by renegotiation.

They regard the Euroscepticism of Mr Howard and his colleagues as lukewarm and unsustained in practice. Did these leaders not sign the Single European Act and the (amended) Maastricht treaty? They spent 18 years handing 70 per cent of lawmaking and regulation over from Westminster to Brussels. They claimed constantly to renegotiate, but they never did. They just accused true sceptics of being “bastards”?

Everyone may now be a Euro-sceptic, other than the herbivore Liberal Democrats. But sceptics-in-government have proved pragmatists. Margaret Thatcher and John Major signed their protocols and treaties like good Europeans. Mr Blair tabled some 200 amendments to the new European constitution. Barely a dozen were accepted and he sighed with relief when negotiations collapsed last year. His “red lines” of non-negotiable items are in reality pink. To Britain’s government elite, the EU has always been a fact of life, like the NHS and the Atlantic alliance. Withdrawal has been unthinkable.

Not any more. Last week saw a Peasants’ Revolt. The UKIP has put withdrawal on the map, capturing the hearts, if not the votes, of an overwhelming majority of Tories. How can Mr Howard claim to renegotiate Britain’s position in Europe, they say, if he dare not threaten withdrawal? Without withdrawal he negotiates from weakness. Where is the bottom line in that, where the conviction, where the glory?

This offers a deep divide in British politics. Like the best historical divides — the Corn Laws, tariff reform, appeasement — it is vividly reflected within the Tory party not between it and other parties. To Tories Europe is not like health or privatisation. It lies deep in their DNA. It is Britain or not Britain.

Mr Howard cannot ignore such a divide, any more than could Peel or Bonar Law or Chamberlain. The Conservative Party’s strength is provincial. It lies in a coalition of commercial, professional and landed interests which have long viewed the Euro-appeasement of its leaders with suspicion. These groups saw Baroness Thatcher and Mr Major dismantle their power bases in the English cities and counties and hand that power over to Brussels. They duly deserted the party. They stayed at home.

Now they have found an outlet for their lost potency, supported by a clear base in public opinion. The party’s one-time supporters want Euroscepticism with attitude. They want localism. They want blood. They may not demand immediate withdrawal, but they want withdrawal “unless”.

Mr Howard cannot afford to alienate the UKIP any more. That would be a self-inflicted wound that would tarnish his remarkable achievement, of restoring confidence to his party and giving it a sporting election chance. Even if UKIP support falls to 5 per cent, its continuing presence would devastate constituency morale. Last week the UKIP won the right to Tory respect. I believe that the divide within the sceptic camp is becoming more apparent than real. Tories and the UKIP will be standing shoulder to shoulder for “no” during the referendum. The UKIP’s bottom line of a “civilised withdrawal” implies, at very least, a new deal on trade with the EU. That negotiation has to have substance.

Mr Howard’s bottom line rejects whatever constitution Mr Blair may, or may not, bring back from Brussels this weekend. If the British reject the EU constitution, the EU will not simply revert to the status quo ante. There will be crockery smashed all over Europe. Other European leaders, already quaking in the face of popular aversion to Brussels, may accept that “Treaty-of-Rome” Europe has had its day. The European adventure would need renegotiating from the bottom up. In that event all European bets are off. Tory sceptics and UKIP together will have won the day.

Even if so seismic an outcome does not follow rejection, Britain will have to forge a new, more detached, relationship with its partners. Scepticism would then be reflected in negotiating choices. I cannot see why Mr Howard need reject in advance the “clean break” option, any more than the UKIP rejects the need for renegotiation. The desire for a trading rather than political union accords with the view of most Tories, and with many Labour supporters. Nor will the rest of Europe be negotiating from strength. There is no quarrelling with a referendum.

The old vision of a federal Europe is foundering. The new constitution is its last gasp, a morass of pompous language and centralist aggrandisement. The European movement has converted what Wells called a “community of will” into a “community of obedience”. It forgot that the finest artefact of postwar reconstruction was not economic cohesion but nation-state democracy. It forgot states’ rights.

All this the Tories should be able to agree with the UKIP, or at least with its supporters. We are seeing the slow morbidity of the EU’s body. It will take time to die, but time need not come between happy necrophiliacs. The one thing Mr Howard cannot afford is pride. He needs the UKIP more than it needs him. That is a fact, but not an insuperable one.