Heseltine steps back from a beef war

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The Government was last night back-pedalling on threats to retaliate against Europe's ban on British beef after top-level advice that it had weak legal grounds for such a move.

Amid mounting signs of Cabinet disarray over its threats to take action, Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, last night went out of his way to emphasise that "diplomatic" means were necessary to resolve the BSE conflict. "I don't see anybody sabre-rattling ... The important thing is not for anybody to run away with the idea that we are trying to find some belligerent way of resolving a problem which would be far better resolved through diplomatic channels," he said on Channel Four News.

The hint of retreat - which will be seized on by the Opposition today - came after the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, warned the Government yesterday that Britain would be on weak legal ground if it took retaliatory action against Europe over the ban on beef exports.And while Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, demanded urgent moves to lift the ban, Mr Heseltine was at pains to stress that it was "quite wrong" to build up expectations of a "semi-macho" stance against Britain's European partners. The different tones struck by two of John Major's most senior ministers is bound to provoke criticism when the Prime Minister faces questions in the Commons today.

Sir Nicholas advised Cabinet colleagues that counter-measures would risk a legal challenge in the European Court of Justice and undermine Britain's own case. Despite his warning, ministers were refusing to rule out taking action. Mr Rifkind, attacked EU governments for the "positive absurdity" of banning British beef in the acknowledged absence of a threat to public health.

He steered clear of directly threatening retaliation in discussions with fellow ministers, but later hinted that some form of reprisal might be the only option left to Britain. He said: "I have no doubt that if it is not satisfactorily resolved it would have wider implications for Britain's relations with the EU ...

"We want to see a very early agreed outcome which will involve the lifting of the ban. That is what ought to happen and it should happen in the near future. Of course, if it did not happen, inevitably other options would have to be looked at."

However, he took heart from sympathetic remarks made by both the European Commission President, Jacques Santer, and the Italian Foreign Minister, Susanna Agnelli. Mr Santer said the Commission favoured an immediate removal of the ban on products containing beef derivatives.

A spokesman said the Commission had received no indication that Britain might be considering retaliation. "It would not only be illegal [but] it would also be counterproductive ... It would also generate a bad atmosphere among the 15 and militate against an early lifting of the ban."

Ministers are pinning their hopes on today's talks between Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, and Franz Fischler, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, to get the ban lifted.

Andrew Marr, page 17