Chris Moncrieff – The corridors of power …

The terrible events of September 11 hung over the Labour Party conference in Brighton. But amid all the anguished and sometimes masterly speeches there was a strong hint of something which will almost certainly have a massive effect on the conduct of the next general election.

For the first time, the prime minister indicated strongly that the referendum on the euro will take place in the current parliament. It was this broad hint which caused the Tories to prick up their ears.

It came as a surprise. The implications for the economy are huge. But for the Tory Party, which expected the referendum to be held in the next parliament (assuming Labour wins a third term), the consequences will be no less significant. The European issue, and the euro, have split the Tory Party down the middle since 1992.

John Major’s government was nearly brought down more than once by a gaggle of anti-European Tory back-benchers (Iain Duncan Smith included) over the Maastricht Treaty. And the Conservatives wrongly allowed Europe to dominate their election campaign last June – and paid a heavy price.

What is more, the recent Tory leadership election was fought largely on this issue, although the contestants pretended otherwise. So, if the referendum is held before the next election, the Tories can enter that campaign released from the European bugbear which has bedevilled and damaged the party for so long.

Whatever the outcome of that referendum, the issue will have been resolved by the time the PM chooses to go to the country. It will be a fait accomplit.

Might we therefore see the Tories going into a general election campaign as a disciplined and united, rather than as a disorganised, squabbling outfit that has not looked electable for a decade?

Maybe Blair has done the Conservatives a favour: with this burden removed, they can concentrate their fire power on Labour at the next election rather than themselves. That would be a novelty.

– Chris Moncrieff is a senior political analyst at PA News.

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