LONDON — THE front-runner in the opposition Labour party's leadership race is advocating a strong pro-Europe stance for Britain in contrast to what he calls the ruling Conservative party's ``disunity and divisions'' on membership of the European Union.
Tony Blair's determination to exploit splits in Prime Minister John Major's Cabinet on attitudes toward the EU marks a radical departure from his party's former policies.
Ten years ago Labour favored Britain's withdrawal from the EU, and although its attitude later softened, the party still has a significant Euro-skeptical wing.
Elections for Labour leadership are July 21, and Mr. Blair has said that under his guidance there would be little room for anti-EU sentiment. This puts him at loggerheads with the government.
During last month's European Parliament election campaign Mr. Major stressed the importance of limiting the influence Brussels wields over national policy. He then vetoed the candidacy of Jean-Luc Dehaene for the presidency of the European Commission, arguing that the Belgian premier was too wedded to ``big government.''
Peter Riddell, a leading political analyst, says Blair's strong pro-European views ensure that attitudes towards the EU will be the ``great divide'' in British politics after Labour's leadership election.
All published polls show Blair well ahead of his rivals. In an interview with the London Times on Wednesday, he conceded that in Britain there was a skeptical public mood on EU issues. But he said that for Labour ``the great thing is to stick by what we think and believe.'' Labour, he said, should be ``the thinking, pro-European party.''
His comments were quickly seized on by government ministers who accused Blair of hypocrisy.
Michael Howard, the home secretary, noted that in the 1983 general election Blair endorsed the official Labour Party line that Britain should withdraw from the European Community. ``The only conclusion can be that he hadn't got the courage of his convictions or that his memory has failed him,'' Mr. Howard jibed.
In the 1980s Labour was under strong trade-union influence, which helped to ensure that many of the Party's members of Parliament (MPs) and activists hewed to an anti-European line.
But such attitudes, coupled with a commitment to nuclear disarmament, proved deeply unpopular at the hustings, and the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher and Major won four general elections in a row.
Blair supporters say he is determined to lead his party away from its past strategic errors. They note that Conservative divisions on Europe convey the impression of a government that has lost its way. Blair wants to reap the benefit of these perceptions.
Some government ministers seem to be aware of the potential threat to the Conservatives posed by a Labour party led by Blair and advocating constructive European policies. Kenneth Clarke, chancellor of the exchequer, says the ``political obsession'' in Britain over European monetary union is a ``tedious irrelevance.''
There are, however, as many as 50 Conservative MPs who strongly oppose further steps towards European unity, and their presence on the back benches of the House of Commons, where the government has a majority of under 20 is likely to ensure that the government hews to lukewarm EU policies.
Ironically, although he is advocating pro-European policies, Blair also says he admired Mrs. Thatcher's leadership style.
The former prime minister was a declared foe of closer European unity, but Blair says he liked the fact that she had a clear set of aims and pursued them with vigor.