Cabinet tension as beef vetoes continue

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John Major and senior Cabinet colleagues last night agreed to continue blocking European business to get the ban on beef exports lifted, in spite of warnings that it could harm British business interests abroad.

There were tensions in the Cabinet in spite of an attempt to present a united front. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, who attended the "war Cabinet", was said to be concerned about continued retaliatory action.

The Prime Minister summoned ministers to Downing Street to agree to carry on the action after the expected partial lifting of the ban today by the agriculture ministers' council on exports of beef products, tallow, gelatin and semen. It will include blocking a move to declare 1997 anti- racism year.

The Cabinet agreed to maintain the blocking of EU business until a framework for lifting the ban is agreed. Although Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, will present a 200-page dossier at today's council in Luxembourg, detailing Britain's plans for dealing with BSE, including culling up to 80,000 cattle, unpublished figures obtained by the Independent show the incidence of BSE among young cows has barely changed in the past six years. Among cows under five years old, the percentage has fallen from 2 per cent in 1989 to 1.5 per cent in 1995; among cows aged more than six, the incidence of 3 per cent in 1995 is the second-highest in the past seven years.

Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, warned the Chancellor that he will be made to look "an ass" by blocking a measure this week to combat fraud in the EU, which Britain supported.

Calling for Britain to "de-escalate" the action, Leon Brittan, Britain's senior European Commissioner, warned Mr Major: "Don't let Euro-sceptics call the tune. The Conservative Party is not going to win the election by rabid anti-Europeanism. That will look like panic."

Hugh Dykes, a leading Tory Euro-supporter, said: "To base the policy stance on an attitude of pleasing the pantomime figures of Norman Lamont and Theresa Gorman must be seriously worrying to the whole of the Cabinet."

The CBI, which this week is mounting a campaign to support business in Europe, expressed fears that the row over beef is damaging business interests. Adair Turner, director general of the CBI, said the anti-European press, which had supported the Government's action, was "not helpful".

"It will be concerning if it goes on - both in terms of our reputation and people's feeling of our commitment to Europe," he said on the BBC Breakfast with Frost programme.

Senior ministers said last night they were "depressed" by polls showing no improvement in the Government's rating, in spite of the action. Mr Hogg, with the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, will embark on a tour of Europe later in the week to put the case for lifting the ban.

The former foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, said "trench warfare" with Brussels would be counter-productive: "I think that [non-cooperation] is reasonable as a short-term tactic, but to settle down to some sort of trench warfare, particularly against things that we are in favour of, would of course be counter-productive."

He also cautioned Mr Major against shifting to a more Euro-sceptic policy to court popularity. "It's a mistake, even on a narrow political calculation, to suppose that electoral or even personal salvation lies in going down that road," he told LWT's Crosstalk programme.

Three former European Commissioners and three former senior British diplomats today issued a joint statement warning that retaliation threatened to relegate Britain to "second class status within Europe".

Those signing the statement, issued by the European Movement, included Lord Jenkins, the former SDP leader and European president and Bruce Millan, a former Labour MP.

Ministers' offensive, page 2