Richard North, 04/10/2004  

Of the torrent of comment on and advice to the Conservatives in today’s newspapers, I think I prefer the Telegraph leader, not least the observation that "Every know-it-all thinks he has some quick fix to their problems." Touché.

But the central thesis offered by the Telegraph is one that will not be unfamiliar to readers of this Blog, which amounts to the simple fact that the Tories are not believed:

… the hard truth is that the Conservative Party has lost the benefit of the doubt. When UKIP says that it is against the EU Constitution, people believe it; when the Tories do, they are assumed to be electioneering. This is especially true when they add lawyerly caveats of their own - refusing, for example, to say what they will do if Brussels refuses to repatriate powers, or claiming that their commitment on inheritance tax is just an aspiration.
This must be read in conjunction with Peter Riddell’s piece in The Times headed, "Supporters say a tougher line on Europe will win more votes". Data from the Populus survey shows that the Conservative leadership is being urged by a big majority of its own supporters "to take an even more sceptical approach towards Europe".

Nearly three quarters of Tory voters (71 per cent) think that the party would be more likely to increase its electoral appeal by "being much tougher in opposing the EU constitution and offering a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU". A mere 13 per cent disagree while 42 percent of all voters think a more Eurosceptic line would benefit the party.

Tying these two strands together, and adding our view, it has to be said that, in principle, there is not much wrong with the Tory’s current EU policy: the opposition to the euro and the constitution and, in the wake of a "no" vote on the constitution, a commitment to renegotiate the treaties with a view to repatriating significant powers.

The problem is that, as far as the latter goes, no one believes it will happen. And as long as the Tories evade the issue of what they would do if the "colleagues" say "no" to our demands for the repatriation of powers, or offer equivocal and unconvincing answers, as did Redwood last night, they will continue not to be believed.

Arguably, though, there is another dimension. The Telegraph reports that the single biggest reason given for not supporting the Tories is that "it is hard to know what the Conservatives stand for at the moment" and the very fact of the Tories actually standing up and saying something unequivocal could transform the public perception of them.

At the moment, their "lawyerly caveats" simply serve to make them sound shifty. A simple statement of principle would change all that. Imagine Howard saying, "we are committed to repatriating x, y and z powers. We are not going to take 'no' for an answer and, therefore, if elected, we will make our demands. If they are refused, we will act unilaterally. If that means that we will have to leave the EU, then so be it".

This, of course, is the "nuclear option" but, as we all know, the intention of deploying it is to avoid conflict. The very fact that one has it ensures that it will not be used. Hence, a Conservative government that makes it plain from the outset that it intends to leave the EU unless its demands are satisfied would, in theory, find the "colleagues" willing to negotiate whereas anything short of that would simply lead to a rebuff.

Alongside that, the Tories could also start making a serious case, if not for withdrawal, then for the damage that the EU is doing. In an earlier Blog we drew attention to the scourge of fly-tipping and the unreported fact the current problems were largely the result of implementing EU law.

In today’s Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reports on how an "idiotic" EU directive is threatening to end crucial medical research, preventing universities and hospitals carrying out low-budget studies of medical products.

If, instead of blathering vaguely about the "benefits" of our membership of the EU, Tory politicians put their minds to a series of hard-hitting exposés of the real damage caused by our membership, a threat to withdraw unless negotiations succeeded, far from looking extreme, would appear the most natural and rational thing to do.

By this means, a political climate that has been conditioned by years of soggy propaganda about the benefits of "Europe" could be transformed. It would leave Blair and "his case for Europe" stranded, with clear blue water opening up between the Tories and Labour.

Thus, the take from this "know-it-all" is simple. We need some "clear blue water". The trust will follow.

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