and COLIN BROWN
The European Commission yesterday launched a strong and unprecedented counter-attack on Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, following his nationalistic diatribe against Brussels on Tuesday.
Echoing dismay among some ministers, pro-Europeans and even some Euro- sceptics in the Conservative Party, the President of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, was officially said in Brussels to have regarded the barrage of anti-European sentiment expressed in Blackpool as "deplorable" and "grotesque".
Some ministers privately described as "naked" and "crude" Mr Portillo's speech to the Blackpool conference - cleared by the Prime Minister - in which he promised to resist a "single European army" and aligned British Conservatism with the SAS motto: "Who dares, wins". The armed forces were said to be livid over what one senior officer described as the "prostitution" of their reputation by Mr Portillo in search of short-term political gain.
One senior minister is understood to have protested to Mr Major about the terms with which Mr Portillo mocked the European Commission.
A spokesman for Mr Santer did not name Mr Portillo but said the Commission President found it "deplorable" that politicians were creating straw men to knock them down publicly. "Mr Santer thinks it is grotesque to have recourse to this kind of behaviour for reasons of maintaining a high profile in politics and the media," a Commission spokesman, Joao Vale de Almeida, said. Commission officials pointed out there is little chance a pan-European army will result from deliberations on closer European defence co-operation.
Conservative members of the European Parliament were appalled at the impact the speech would have on Britain's relations with the EU. One minister suggested that it was "just not done" to involve British armed forces in a party political speech. "The SAS will just hate it," he said. Mr Portillo's reference to the SAS as striking "a chill down the spine of the enemy" was said to have caused particular offence, because Mr Portillo was seen to be hijacking a reputation that others had earned.
Mr Portillo refused to comment on the Commission's attack when he arrived last night to address a fringe meeting of the right-wing Conservative Way Forward group.
But it provoked a sharp, if predictable reaction from right-wing backbenchers. Anthony Coombs, an MP in the Thatcherite No Turning Back group said: "What we are doing is setting out the realities - what people think not what some overblown bureaucrat in Brussels might think." Sir George Gardiner, chairman of the 92 group, said Mr Santer had been "caught on the raw" and added: "Mr Santer has got to realise this is the view of the majority of the Conservative Party."
Alan Howarth, the MP for Stratford-upon-Avon whose defection to Labour overshadowed the start of the conference said that Mr Portillo's "extraordinary tirade of anti-foreigner emotion" was part of a "lurch to the right" that could provoke MPs to leave the party.
Lord Howe, the former Foreign Secretary, said: "I think it is very disturbing to find someone holding the position he does exploiting so faultlessly the easy anti-European applause line, casting Brussels as an ogre."
The unrest caused by Mr Portillo's speech threatened to undermine efforts by Mr Major and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, to reunite the party by striking a more Euro-sceptic note in declarations on a single currency. Lord Plumb, leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, said: "I would not expect a minister of the Crown to be saying some of the things he said in respect of Brussels or in respect of Europe." Pro- Europeans were disturbed to discover that Mr Major had approved Mr Portillo's speech.
Earlier Michael Heseltine denied suggestions that he rebuked Mr Portillo in his own platform speech yesterday. The Deputy Prime Minister said that a reference to people wrapping themselves in the national flag was related to "phoney sentiments of Tony Blair".
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