Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, told gloomy Conservative MPs:"We are not going to get from the member states an absolute guaranteed timetable leading to dates when the ban will be lifted."
Northern Ireland MPs - whose votes are critical while the Government has a majority of one - reacted with dismay after Mr Hogg admitted that ministers had not yet tabled "detailed working papers" to try to secure a lifting of the ban for certified BSE-free herds, fed mainly on grass, in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Mr Hogg said other European Union countries were "facing very strong internal pressure from their consumers and from their farming unions, not to agree to a rapid and substantial lifting of the ban.
"And therefore it seems to us probably that the best way forward is to concentrate on the specialist herds and possibly on cattle born after 1 August."
Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, who mocked Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, for failing to speak for the Government in the debate, challenged Mr Hogg over the Government's failure to secure a lifting of the ban by this month - as promised by the Prime Minister after the Florence summit in June.
Mr Hogg found himself interrupted repeatedly by disbelieving Tory backbenchers, many of whom were not rebels and not likely to vote against the Goverment, but whose obvious despair sapped morale on the Tory side of the House of Commons.Reuse content