Prize for the most crass coverage of the Conservative Party conference – against pretty stiff competition – has to go to the Guardian, with its headline, "Howard puts Europe at top of his agenda".
For once, this is not the scourge of the sub-editors, attaching a misleading description to the copy; Michael White, the political editor and author of the piece, really believes it. "Michael Howard", he writes
...yesterday ratcheted up the Conservative campaign against European integration when he promised to set an early date for a referendum on the EU constitution on the first day of his premiership - and to "go further" in pulling back powers from Brussels.One has to note the illiteracy. "Come and join us" is a call that would be best addressed to potential defectors. If they were actually defectors, they would already have joined, and the call would be somewhat redundant. That aside, White continues:
On the day that the UK Independence party, his rival for Eurosceptic votes, saw its main financial backer return to the Tory fold, Mr Howard made no attempt to disguise his determination to thwart UKIP's boast that it is poised to "kill" the Tories. "Come and join us," he told defectors.
Promoting his "pick and mix" policy for allowing EU member states to integrate or not, as they wish, Mr Howard said yesterday that rapidly saying no to a written constitution and later to the euro would not be enough. "It's time we went further" by repatriating the social chapter, the EU fishing policy and other powers, he said.Without identifying his sources, White then asserts that "Pro-Europeans and unions expressed dismay at what they regard as pandering to the UKIP menace…", thereby either displaying his total ignorance of what has been happening, or simply pandering to the prejudices of his own readers.
For a start, anyone who listened to Howard will know that he made crime his number one issue, and spent much of his time talking about it. In his "ten words" at the end of the speech, outlining the main priorities, "Europe" was not even mentioned.
Furthermore, apart from the commitment to an early referendum, what Howard is offering is nothing new. The fishing repatriation policy was actually agreed by Hague, endorsed by IDS and carried over by Howard. The Social Chapter exclusion was Major’s policy, and has been Tory policy ever since and, if anything, Howard has watered down the commitment on foreign aid.
If White is not bad enough, however, the leader – if anything – is worse. "Mining europhobia" runs the headline, the copy writer noting that the delegates responded fervently to Howard’s references to "Europe" – "a sign of the Tory party's undiminished grassroots Europhobia."
"The big question in the conference corridors", it suggests "remains whether such pledges are enough to blunt the challenge of the UK Independence party." Sadly, it leaves the question hanging. To answer it would require a level of intelligence that the Guardian leader-writers do not possess.