I'll use the Euro veto, says Blair

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday played the Euro-sceptic card to deny allegations that Labour would be a "soft touch" over Europe, as John Major returned from the Dublin summit to face a "cliffhanger" vote in the Commons tonight on fishing policy.

The Labour leader sought to maximise the threat of a government defeat tonight with an assurance that he would be prepared to use the veto and allow Britain to be isolated to protect the country's interests.

"If it is in Britain's interests to be isolated through the use of the national veto, then we will be isolated. If it is in Britain's interests to be in a minority of one, we will be in a minority of one," he said.

A Labour government would use the veto on defence, taxation, immigration and border controls. But setting out one of the central themes for the election, Mr Blair said that Mr Major was weak in Europe because his government is divided.

He answered the Tory charge that European leaders were waiting for a Blair-led Labour government by arguing that he would be able to bargain from strength. "If we're to stay in Europe, the test should be: success or failure.

"And the truth is, because of the problems in the Conservative Party, we are probably in the weakest position Britain has been in - weak in terms of gaining the things we actually want since we entered the Common Market," he said on BBC Radio 4 yesterday.

A Labour leadership source said: "We are trying to do on the Europe issue what we have achieved on taxation. Europe was the last weapon in the Tory locker, and we want to neutralise it."

Although an announcement is expected today on the selective cull of 100,000 cattle at a cost of pounds 200m, Mr Major will return to face demoralised Euro-sceptics when he reports to the Commons after the Dublin summit. Conservative Euro-sceptics said that there was a "depressed mood" and some were still considering whether to vote against the Government in tonight's vote on fishing.

Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, will fly to Brussels for the agriculture meeting after the vote to try to get a start on the lifting of the export ban on beef, beginning in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister is expected to deflect Euro-sceptic criticism from his own back bench by accusing Mr Blair of weakness on Europe. Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday accused Mr Blair of following the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, towards a European "superstate".

The Foreign Secretary reaffirmed the Government's readiness to refuse to sign a new treaty at the next summit in Amsterdam after the election, unless it won its demands to end "quota hopping" on fishing in British waters by Spanish trawlers, and to block the introduction of the 48-hour working-time directive in Britain.

But Conservative Euro-sceptics showed no let-up in their criticism, which now seems set to continue until the election. Supporters of John Redwood, the Tory champion on the right wing, accused Mr Major of surrendering the British veto over the legalisation of the euro and the introduction of the stability pact to enforce monetary discipline on countries entering the single European currency.

The Euro-sceptics will question Mr Major over reports that Germany and France will exclude Britain from a stability pact for those inside the single currency, if Britain remains outside it.

Risking inflaming the Euro-sceptics, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, defended the new euro banknotes approved at Dublin last week. "They're the modern type of European banknote with these psychedelic colours - which I think are there for security reasons - and they're all right," Mr Clarke told the Money Programme on BBC2 last night.

"They had to be deliberately a bit Euro and non-national. I think the excitement of the British press is frankly ridiculous. It's just the Euro- sceptic press decided to get excited about them all over again," the Chancellor said.

The Prime Minister had hoped to return to London claiming a victory, after Tory backbench unrest a fortnight ago against the Chancellor, but Labour strategists said that the Irish government, which held the revolving presidency of the European Union, had removed any points where Mr Major could make his stand at Dublin. "We can't see any cheer-lines for his statement today," one leadership source said.

The Government has imposed a three-line whip on all its MPs, including those who are sick, to avoid a damaging defeat on the fishing policy tonight. Euro-sceptic Tory MPs will be meeting before the vote to decide on tactics. Donald Dewar, the Labour chief whip, said it would be a "cliffhanger".

A defeat would not bring down the Government but, after Labour's victory at the Barnsley East by-election, Mr Major is in effect in charge of a minority government. A defeat could therefore hasten an early general election. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, said that his nine MPs, on whom the Government now depends for its survival, would not act "capriciously or irresponsibly".