Major attack on Santer cheers MPs

Click to follow
John Major yesterday sought to bolster Tory unity by repudiating the Euro-federalist vision of Jacques Santer, the European Union president, in a pugnacious Euro-sceptic performance in the Commons.

But the fragile unity could be destroyed today if the Government suffers an embarrassing defeat over a European deal to give access to British fishing waters to Spanish trawlers.

Tory MPs responded by applauding Mr Major at the end of Prime Minister's questions and shouted "more" after he said the "high tide" of European federalism had passed.

Last night, Jonathan Aitken, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, met William Waldegrave, the embattled Minister for Agriculture, at the Commons to thrash out an 11th-hour compensation package for fishermen to avert defeat in tonight's vote.

It was unclear whether the compensation for British fishermen would be enough to buy off the rebels. The Government faces a coalition of Labour, rebel Euro-sceptic MPs who lost the whip, Liberal Democrats and Ulster Unionists who were threatening to withdraw their support for the Government in protest at an alleged sell-out on the future of Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister's dismissal of the federalist speech by Mr Santer yesterday in the European Parliament is almost certain to reduce the rebellion. Taunted by Labour MPs over the European president, who was Mr Major's preferred choice after blocking Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Prime Minister said: "I believe the high tide of federalism in Europe is passed, and I think that will be apparent in the inter-governmental conference that is to come."

Tory MPs were jubilant when Mr Major finished with a sideswipe at Tony Blair, the Labour leader, for supporting an increase in the powers of the European Parliament "in view of the low opinion he has expressed" of Labour MEPs.

The Prime Minister then toured the Commons tea-room with Cabinet colleagues to rebuild relations with the Tory backbench. But in a rebuff to Mr Major, Rupert Allason, who has only recently had the whip restored, last night joined a protest by eight of the nine currently "unwhipped'' members.

Inside Parliament, page 6

Santer's speech, page 13

Leading article, page 17