Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, dispatched to Brussels to sound out European colleagues on a cut in the planned cull of 140,000 animals, was sent home with a humiliating rebuff. Clearly irked by London's attempt to renege on a deal hailed by John Major in June as a "triumph", ministers dismissed as "nothing new" studies showing that the disease will die out by 2001 regardless of the cull, the basis for Mr Hogg's plea.
Some even warned of financial retaliation if the cull is ditched. Belgium's agriculture minister, Karel Pinxten, said failure to implement the BSE eradication plan could provoke other states to block pounds 300m the European Union is expected to pay this year to cover the cost of destroying British cattle over the age of 30 months.
But Downing Street sources indicated that Britain would not unilaterally reduce the cull and Mr Major is expected to call an urgent meeting of ministers.
The Government's business managers have advised the Cabinet that they are unlikely to get a vote for the expanded cull through Parliament. Mr Major now faces the prospect of admitting that his hopes of beginning to lift the ban by the end of the year have been dashed.
Conservative MPs were pessimistic about the chances of lifting the ban before 2000. "There is a growing realisation that it doesn't matter what we do - they are going to keep that ban on until the last cow has died from BSE in 2001 or 2002," said Sir Jerry Wiggin, Tory chairman of the Commons select committee on agriculture.
Germany meanwhile warned that British defiance over the eradication scheme could lead to an all-out trade confrontation. A number of German states have already banned British dairy products and are refusing to respect an EU agreement which allows exports of bull semen to resume.
The Cabinet meets tomorrow to consider the next move under mounting pressure from Euro-sceptics and MPs from farming constituencies to abandon the special cull. But it also knows there is no scope to renegotiate the Florence deal which established the selective slaughter of high-risk cattle as the precondition to a phased removal of the world-wide ban on British beef exports.
Franz Fischler, the EU agriculture commissioner, said he was disappointed that Britain had so far failed to carry out any of the accelerated cull. "The cull was not defined in the agreement, but carrying it out was made a precondition" he said.
Ivan Yates, the Irish minister whose government holds the EU presidency, said Florence was "explicit" that there could be no move towards dismantling any part of the ban unless Britain fulfilled its side of the bargain.
Mr Yates encouraged farmers in Northern Ireland who have been pressing the Government to have the province treated apart from the rest of the United Kingdom given the low incidence of BSE. But even they could not be considered by Brussels unless London agreed to the cull, he said. The timetable for the lifting of the export ban was therefore in Britain's hands, he added.Reuse content