BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 11.03.01

Film: Iain Watson looks at why Tory candidates won't all be singing from the same hymn sheet over Europe.

IAIN WATSON: The Tories thought they'd laid to rest the ghosts of division on Europe, which so bedeviled them back in nineteen-ninety-seven. But it now looks like they've been resurrected, and not long before the next general election. So, don't watch alone - it's TORY EURO NIGHTMARE....2. Now, sequels are never quite as scary as the original - but even former front bench spokesmen - appointed by William Hague - are - politically speaking at least, at each other's throats on Europe. PATRICK NICHOLLS MP: As far as the single currency is concerned I shall say what I said last time which is that I personally wouldn't vote to go into a single currency in any circumstances whatsoever. DAVID CURRY MP: As far as the single currency is concerned I shall say that the United Kingdom should retain the option of joining - if we believe it's in our national interest and provided people vote for it in a referendum. TIM COLLINS MP: I would say to any candidate who chooses to change the wording of Conservative party policies in any respect it would be preferable if you didn't do it. WATSON: This Northamptonshire constituency is number five on the Tory target list of winnable marginals. We came to Kettering to see the prospective parliamentary candidate. It looks like somebody has been putting on the frighteners; this highly marginal constituency isn't the sort of place where you'd expect the Tories to be running scared on Europe; in fact it's one issue where they seem to be clearly in touch with the vast majority of voters. Recent polls suggest that six out of ten people don't want to scrap the pound, so where is the local Conservative candidate to argue the case? Well there's not much sign of him round here. Actually he had agreed to do an interview, then he contacted Conservative Central Office in London and they said no. And this place is number six on the Tory target list, Wellingborough, in the heart of middle England. Here in the Wellingborough constituency, just like Kettering, you've got more chance of catching a glimpse of a ghost than filming the Conservative candidate - but its not the paranormal that's responsible for his disappearance. He had agreed to an interview, he then contacted Conservative Central Office and they said no. This seat is number eleven on the Tory target list - Romford in Essex, where you would expect a full-blooded campaign on Europe; and to be fair, the candidate had agreed to be interviewed, then he checked with Conservative Central Office, and you've guessed it, they said no. Although Central Office think it's a vote winner, it seems few prospective parliamentary candidates are allowed to advocate the policy of keeping the pound. So just what lies behind this mysterious disappearance of Conservative candidates in some of the country's key seats? Could it have anything to do with this memo - sent from Conservative Central Office to all Conservative candidates. It reads: Please contact John French in the Press Department if you're contacted by BBC On the Record, and when you do the advice is clear - decline all offers of an interview. Central Office were probably nervous that these prospective parliamentary candidates would go beyond the policy of ruling out the Euro only for the lifetime of the next Parliament. In that sense, they were right to intervene from on high - because this is what they would have said if they'd been allowed to appear. In Kettering, when we spoke to the candidate, Phillip Holobone, he replied 'I cannot see myself ever voting to abolish the pound. Never. I'm not a possibly person.' Then in Wellingborough the standard-bearer Peter Bone is on record as saying 'we want nothing to do with the single currency.' And Romford's Tory hopeful, Andrew Rossindell puts it like this: 'I'd be about as likely to vote to abolish the pound as I would to abolish the monarchy. We rule it out, simple as that.' You would advise those candidates not to talk to the media? COLLINS: Candidates should always talk to the media, it's very important that candidates should raise their profile and raise the profile of the Conservative party's policies throughout the land. What I would also say is what candidates say to us all the time, which is we don't want our efforts in a particular constituency to be undermined by the fact that some other candidate somewhere else has been, shall we say, a little off line. And I would also say to those candidates who are thinking of perhaps departing from official Conservative party language, it is not, shall we say, a career enhancing move. WATSON: What's stopping officials here at Conservative Central Office from putting candidates in front of the camera is a fear of history appearing to repeat itself. At the nineteen-ninety-seven General Election around two-hundred candidates issued personal manifestos, opposing the then official policy of 'wait and see' on joining a single currency. Now although the policy has shifted quite a bit since then, to rule out joining the Euro for the lifetime of the next parliament, there are still candidates in key seats who want to go further. In the forty most marginal seats - those that require a modest swing - a total of eleven prospective candidates are either on record as saying they'll NEVER go into a single currency, or they have told us privately, they'll say so during the election campaign. Thirteen say they'll stick to the official line of ruling out the Euro for five years, or the lifetime of the next parliament - while a further sixteen wouldn't say, or couldn't be contacted. The battle for territory can often be bloody. At the last election, these people, the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, along with the Referendum Party - drew around fifty per cent of their vote from former Conservatives. In highly marginal seats like Romford, they could deny a Tory victory. Long-standing Conservative Eurosceptics are stressing there's no need to vote UKIP; as their personal position in opposing the Euro is the same. And, on willingness to withdraw from the European union, the difference with this party is simply on tactics. STEPHEN WARD: If you're in Europe, then you're are committed politically, there's no two ways about it, you cannot be in something, you cannot have a foot in two camps - you get divided loyalties. You have your loyalties to your country, first and foremost, and your people. PATRICK NICHOLLS: I suppose the UKIP position might be to walk out now and then try to negotiate a harmonious relationship after. Mine is more pragmatic. I would try to establish what I want - the supremacy of British law over European and then if not then we would have to leave. Now I have many friends who are UKIP supporters, many UKIP supporters are entirely comfortable with that. BILL CASH: They are addressing questions which are of concern to the British people and the questions that I'm posing, which is about the question of who governs Britain, is in fact quite similar to the questions that the UKIP candidates are putting up and I believe that we should rule out the single currency in principle. WATSON: It's not just MPs and candidates in key marginals who are redefining Tory policy. Some prospective parliamentary candidates in Conservative-held seats might be causing a bit of a scare too. Richard Bacon in Norfolk South told a public website: "I would have no serious objection if the European Parliament were abolished", adding "I would never vote for the abolition of the pound - ever". Meanwhile, in Tory-held Wycombe, Paul Goodman says "I'm against scrapping the pound in any circumstances". COLLINS: What we found during the 1997 General Election is that we didn't just have a small minority of candidates who decided on the odd bit to embellish to Conservative policy we had the majority of candidates flatly contradicting Conservative policy. That is clearly not going to happen. WATSON: So ruling out a single currency forever is a mere embellishment? COLLINS: The point that people need to know is that if they vote Labour or Liberal Democrat they are voting to scrap the pound, if they vote Conservative they are voting to keep the pound. BOB WORCESTER: What they're doing is sending a wider signal to the electorate, to the broad electorate that they're split on this issue and when I talk to Shadow Cabinet ministers and I say "you know what you're doing is opening a wound". They say, "Oh no, no. We're entirely united on this" and I say, "Well what about the big beasts? What about Ken Clarke, what about Michael Heseltine?" - "Oh they're has-beens". Well they may be to the Shadow Cabinet but they're certainly not to the British public. WATSON: They may be few in number but the so-called Europhiles have enough weight to cause damage. The former Chancellor Ken Clarke has been circumspect, but the ex-deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine let it be known, he thought twice about voting Tory. And now David Curry and other pro-Europeans are expected to go their own way, in their election literature. DAVID CURRY: What I'm going to say is that I want Britain to be at the heart of Europe. And as far as the single currency's concerned, I believe that Britain should retain the option of entering, without any predetermined time scale, provided it's in our interests and of course provided people vote for it at the referendum. WATSON: Sources close to Conservative Central Office say the real reason William Hague doesn't rule out the single currency in principle has much to do with his predecessor as party leader. They say that he doesn't want to risk a schism with John Major, the man who wanted to keep his options open on the Euro. But this has cost William Hague funding from a wealthy potential backer. PAUL SYKES: Well I had a quick short meeting and of course everybody knows I've campaigned against the Euro for a long, long time and we just couldn't hit it off basically, there was a difference of opinion. I believe Conservatism and a Conservative should never set a date in the future to give up for giving up control of one's economy -that wasn't compatible with me supporting the party. Now I think William Hague would have been better keeping a very clean and clear line. As I say the line isn't something I...I wish them well, but I couldn't support it. I've never waffled on this issue. Whoever controls the currency, controls the nation. WATSON: So property developer Paul Sykes is putting his millions into a campaign for a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union, as presently constituted. Neither the Conservative Party nor individual Euro-sceptics will share in his largesse. SYKES: I'm not getting involved in candidates and political parties again. It brought me a hell of a lot of flak and hassle. I could do without it. COLLINS: Well I'm sure Paul Sykes is in many respects an admirable person, but he is just one voter, and the fact is that seventy per cent of voters agree with the policy on which we will be fighting the next election, keeping the pound. That's good enough for me. WATSON: The coming election may not reveal the full horror of the Tory divisions on Europe; the leadership say the party is more united now than in 1997 - well, that wouldn't be hard -but some say once the election campaign is out of the way all the stresses and strains just beneath the surface could be tested to breaking point. CURRY: I fear that afterwards we might have a - if what we've got now is a hairline crack, I mean it might be much more of a fissure of actually people saying, we simply want out of Europe and that would really be very disastrous for the Conservative Party. CASH: I think we should have a Referendum, in order to ask the British people, what they think about the whole question of European government and at the same time I believe, that to actually make it happen, we would have to go to the other member states and say, "We have a policy of re-negotiation. These are the amendments we want. We are not going to be governed by Europe, but we're prepared to work within the single market, and we're prepared to cooperate. But we're not prepared to be governed." WORCESTER: After the next general election which we're about to have there is going to be an almighty fight for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party. If you push to the logical extension that Euro-sceptics take over the heart and soul of the Conservative Party then one of two things are bound to happen - one is they will again lose the election after next, 2005, pretty massively, and secondly, there is the possibility of a split in the Conservative Party. WATSON: The Tories haven't yet exorcised their image of being a divided party so, at the forthcoming election, their hopes of benefiting from of an apparently popular policy on the Euro could be dimmed and the wider arguments over Britain's future relationship with Europe look set to rage on.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.