Hurd derides `windy rhetoric' on Europe

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The Independent Online
A new year battle between warring Tory party factions over Europe was in prospect yesterday after Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, launched a strong critique of Eurosceptics' "windy rhetoric'' that did little to address the concerns of ordinar y people.

The strongly worded defence of Britain's EU membership, in a briefing to Conservative Political Centre constitutency groups, includes implicit criticism of the philosophy behind remarks made last year by Michael Portillo, the Thatcher-ite Secretary of State for Employment.

But while it begins with the pointed reminder that Baroness Thatcher, when party leader, had campaigned vigorously for a `'yes'' vote in the 1975 referendum, it is unlikely to convince diehard Eurosceptics who claim the backing of the majority of the party.

It follows weekend remarks by another Thatcherite right-winger, Lord Tebbit, who declared that there were at least nine Tory MPs who were wildly out of sympathy with the views of Conservatives generally; "unfortunately most of them are in the Cabinet,'' he said.

Mr Hurd emphasised yesterday that EU membership brought jobs, the "priceless gift'' of nearly 50 years of peace, and influence. Only 2 per cent of those questioned in a recent CBI survey thought Britain would be better off outside, while the City was going from strength to strength, with even Deutsch-bank moving all its foreign investment banking from Frankfurt to London.

Mr Hurd's strident defence came near to contradicting the import of recent remarks on Britain's world trading role from Mr Portillo - and certainly the suggestion at last autumn's party conference by Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, that if a singlecurrency loomed Britain should contemplate participating only in the European Economic Area, the free trade zone linking the EU and the remaining EFTA countries.

"Now and again, we hear the argument that Britain should forge a new role for itself as an `independent' off-shore Hong Kong-type economy. But the arguments do not stack up,'' Mr Hurd said.

"If we were only members of the European Economic Area we would still have to accept the rules and obligations of the Single Market, but we would have no say in shaping them,'' the Foreign Secretary added.

A bitter reminder of the continuing gulf within the party came, however, as Mr Lamont repeated in a BBC radio interview his conference warning that the single currency was not `'way in the future'' as the Government had argued.

`'I think it is quite possible that other countries will say 1997 - only two years away - is the time when a single currency ought to be attempted.'' France, Germany, Holland and Luxembourg already met the economic criteria. Rubbing salt in the wounds, he said: `'John Major knows that his Cabinet is split over whether to join one.''