Election '97: Major talks tough on foreign fishing

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The Independent Online
John Major has threatened to disrupt the Inter-Governmental Conference until a deal was reached to stop European Union fishing fleets using "quota hopping" to net part of the British catch.

The Prime Minister said he would not allow the IGC in Amsterdam in June to make progress until British demands for "quota hopping" to be banned had been met.

"The IGC will not come to a successful conclusion until they satisfy our objectives on quota hopping," he said.

Senior Conservative sources said he would be seeking to have British- registered foreign ships removed from the register. They represent 26 per cent by tonnage of the United Kingdom's fishing fleet, and have angered British fisherman whose jobs have been put at risk.

Mr Major attempted to raise Europe as one of the key issues for the first time in the campaign as his tour of marginal Tory seats rolled through the West Country, from Land's End to Plymouth, where the Liberal Democrats are challenging the Tories for many seats.

He warned wavering Tory voters that the Liberal Democrats would push a Lib-Lab government to join the single European currency in the first wave, and he cast doubt on Tony Blair's promise of a referendum on a European single currency.

He said Labour had matched the Tory pledge of a referendum on a single currency "but as we've seen over privatisation, devolution, and the unions, their policies changed daily".

Not to be outdone, Mr Blair told BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme that he was prepared to be isolated in Europe if British interests were at stake. "As we said two months ago, we certainly have not ruled out holding up IGC business in order to get the right changes to fishing policy that are in Britain's interest ... What we don't want is a repeat of the Conservative disasters over BSE and the beef war where they thumped the table and had all sorts of tough rhetoric ... but got absolutely nothing done."

The Tories have been reluctant to go on the offensive on the European single currency, fearing it would reopen old wounds. But Mr Major has given carte blanche to Tory candidates to campaign on their own commitments to vote against any proposal to enter a single currency.

That compromise, lashed together at Tory headquarters, last night enabled Mr Major to go on to the attack against Labour. Those close to Mr Major on the campaign trail said he would not use the campaign to change the agreed Cabinet policy by ruling out joining a single currency.

His threat to mount a robust stand at the IGC marks a hardening of policy, which caught out the Conservatives' own research department.

He told party supporters at a rally in Plymouth that he felt in his bones that he was going to win the general election. "We are halfway through the general election campaign. In the last three weeks, I have quartered this country. I have met the real people of Britain. I can tell you I feel it in the air, and in my bones we are going to win," the Prime Minister said.

The mood was changing out there, he said, repeating his criticism of Mr Blair for getting "tetchy" when he was faced with difficult questions, and throwing a cordon sanitaire around himself. "Mr Blair must learn that politics is about the difficult questions. If you aspire to be Prime Minister, you cannot run away from it," he said.