Britain's secret poultry war

NEVER MIND the beef war - in Ken Clarke's day it was all about saving the British Christmas turkey, writes Jo Dillon.

Best known as the "swashbuckling chancellor", Mr Clarke now admits that when he was a health minister in the early Eighties, the Tory government engineered a stand-off with the French over their turkeys that makes Nick Brown's wine boycott look, frankly, chicken.

He has told friends that in 1982, when French turkeys were flooding the British market, officials in the Department of Health seized on imperfections in the food to spark a health scare.

Fears over a fowl pest virus called Newcastle disease (ironically named after Mr Brown's stomping ground) forced French turkeys off British tables during the festive season and sparked a tit-for-tat squabble during which the French banned British mutton and lamb.

As this Christmas approaches and the French ban on British beef rumbles on with little hope of an early resolution, Mr Clarke has confided to friends that the whole episode was a ruse to get people to buy British.

The row went to court with the French claiming the ban was for commercial rather than health reasons, and the two nations were at loggerheads - a far cry from the gentlemanly beef scuffle.

Now Mr Clarke, one of the staunchest pro-Europeans in the Conservative Party, would probably find his sympathies lying with the diplomatic approach.

But he is understood to remember with a wry fondness the bust-up, which turned the season of goodwill into the season of ill-will.

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