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Europe no star as election issue

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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Blair faces toughest battle yet in May 5 parliamentary elections. CNN's Robin Oakley reports.
Which party is best equipped to take Britain forward in 2005?
Liberal Democrat
Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England (CNN) -- British insularity, and self-belief, was famously demonstrated by the old 1940s newspaper headline: "Fog in Channel: Continent cut off." But something similar seems to be happening in this election. Europe has been cut off again for the duration of the contest.

At first that seems curious. The Tories, under William Hague's leadership at the last election in 2001 made it a centerpiece of their campaign that they were going to "Save the Pound," emphasizing their Euro-skeptic opposition to the single currency at every opportunity.

They got little thanks for it, as voters reckoned they should have been concentrating rather harder on issues that affected their daily lives, like schools and hospitals.

In that election and the previous one Labour loved to raise the subject of Europe to demonstrate the divisions in the Tory ranks. In fact so sensitive was the subject of Europe that it even brought me a public "death threat" in 1997 from the normally ever-courteous Conservative Prime Minister John Major.

I had been needling him at a news conference about his readiness to forgive ministers who did not toe the party's "wait and see" line on the Euro but opposed it outright. That was OK, he seemed to argue, so long as they then declared they did back government policy. "So it's all right," I asked him "for a candidate to advocate the slaughter of the first-born so long as he then adds that he supports Conservative party policy on post-natal care?"

The exasperated Major inquired if I was a first-born child and when I nodded assent he replied: "If you are, then I'm prepared to give the policy serious consideration. And to prove I mean it I'll write it out in my own handwriting." (He did once, during another interview in the Cabinet room in Downing Street, take down from the wall a wicked-looking sword given to him by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and wave it contemplatively above my head, so don't say ours is a trade without peril).

But why the silence on Europe in this election? Because all three major parties have good reason to keep quiet about it.

The Labour government has not forgotten the drubbing it took in the European Parliament elections last summer when its share of the vote fell to the lowest point in more than 80 years.

Tony Blair knows that the new European constitution, whether anybody has read it or not, is not popular with British electors, which is why he sought to defuse the issue and keep it out of the election by promising a referendum on the constitution in 2006.

Blair knows that Euro-skeptic tone of today's Conservative party, which is pledging to withdraw Britain from the Common Fisheries policy and to ' renegotiate' other aspects of Britain's relationship with the EU on immigration and labor laws, may be more in tune with electors, even if it is unrealistic. But even so Michael Howard too does not want Europe raging as an election issue either.

Labour may have been clobbered in those European elections, but so were the Tories as UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, raised its share of the vote to 16 per cent and took 12 seats in the European Parliament.

If the Tories start playing the European card then there is a danger that they will simply give a boost to those who really do want Britain out of Europe. They might end up simply giving a boost to UKIP who could cream off a few thousand votes here and there, enough to spoil Conservative chances in a few key marginal seats.

Ah yes, but what about the Liberal Democrats, who are claiming the high moral ground for their opposition to the war in Iraq and for standing up against knee-jerk counter-terrorism legislation.

They are the most pro-European party in British politics, surely they will be trying to turn Europe into a positive? Do not believe it. If challenged the Lib Dems will state their policies, pro-constitution and pro-Euro. But don't expect any pro-Europeans bells and whistles. They have their eye on a number of Tory seats in southwest England and are not going to spoil their chances in those by singing about how much they love Europe.

All three main parties are hugging themselves that UKIP's collection of eccentrics has since last summer turned the party into a laughing stock and that further damage was inflicted by UKIP's acrimonious parting with their former member Robert Kilroy-Silk, the daytime TV presenter who has now formed his own Veritas Party. (Others are calling the latest vehicle for the Kilroy-Silk ego the Vanitas Party).

The bottom line though, as William Hague found to his cost, is that elections are rarely determined by foreign policy questions. Only 3 per cent of electors are currently telling pollsters that policies on Europe will be a determining factor in how they vote.

And despite the questions marks it has raised over his future tenure in a Labour government it was not really surprising that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was classed with the backseat also-rans at Labour's election launch, rather than being given a mini podium of his own like the ministers responsible for health, education and crime. Domestic policy is way out in front.

There is just one way Europe could still get a look in. At that manifesto launch Blair insisted that there would still be a referendum here on the European constitution even if the project had been killed by a French "Non" in their referendum on the EU constitution on May 29.

Since then doubting noises have been creeping out from Foreign Office and Downing Street sources about the firmness of that pledge to hold a 2006 referendum, especially if the Dutch too say no in their referendum on June 1.

If Blair turns turtle before May 5 on the referendum question then it will become another trust issue. And if it becomes clear that there will be no British referendum in those circumstances then Euro-skeptics in all parties may find their voices and unsubscribe to the conspiracy of silence. But even then the question would be how many were listening.

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