Major denounces EC 'myths': Maastricht critics accused of tilting at windmills as PM tries to restore party unity

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JOHN MAJOR attacked the myths and distortions of his party's Maastricht critics yesterday, dismissing each of the spectres that had been raised during a week of intense debate at the Conservative conference in Brighton.

In a speech designed to bind the self-inflicted wounds of the most dramtic Tory party conference since the Second World War, the Prime Minister told the massed ranks of representatives that he understood the raw nerves, gut issues and passionate opinions that had divided the party.

Mr Major said: 'Of course emotions run high. We saw that from both sides in that great debate earlier this week. For many of you, I know, the heart pulls in one direction and the head in another.'

But he was less charitable in his treatment of the Thatcher-Tebbit camp. Without mentioning them by name, he cited Don Quixote, fighting imaginary battles. 'He tilted at windmills in the belief they were giants. He saw things that weren't there.'

The Prime Minister warned the party rank and file: 'Emotion must not govern policy. At the heart of our policy lies one objective and one only - a cold, clear-eyed calculation of the British national interest.'

Britain had always grown and prospered when it looked outwards; the EC provided jobs, markets, trade, inward investment, and, most important of all, peace and stability for the continent.

There was also the 'hard-headed' fact that if Britain broke its commitment to the treaty, it would for ever kill British influence on the Community's future direction. 'I'm not starry-eyed about Europe,' he said. 'If I'm starry-eyed, it's about this country.' The draw-bridge could not be lifted, the shutters put up. 'In the name of the present, and in the name of the future, we cannot sit this one out,' he said to moderate applause.

Mr Major began by reassuring party and country that would not turn 'a deaf ear to the heartbeat' of the nation, and 'come hell or high water' he would never allow the distinctive British character to be lost in a federal Europe.

But turning to the 'uncomfortable' reality of the debate, he said: 'The treaty seems to have become enshrouded in myth and legend, even sometimes in this conference. Certainly, the treaty I hear talked about is not the one I negotiated.'

He then picked up and knocked down each of the fears that had been raised during a week of party blood-letting.

Maastricht did not commit Britain to a single currency; immigration was excluded from the treaty; he had not signed up to the Social Chapter on working conditions; the treaty explicitly ruled an EC role in education; defence had been kept out of Community control. As for citizenship, he said: 'We are British citizens and we will always remain British citizens.

'If I believed what some people said about the treaty I would vote against it. But I don't. So I am going to put the real treaty - the treaty that I negotiated - back to the House of Commons.' To refuse ratification would be a historic mistake.

While Mr Major's speech was dominated by his attempt to restore some semblance of party unity on Europe, he also offered reassurance on the Government's economic objectives; put Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, in charge of a revived drive to free business from the bonds of official red tape; dedicated himself to a return to the basics of education; and promised a crackdown on crime.

He said that economies were strengthened by low inflation and a sympathetic climate for business. 'It is people, not government. Business, not bureaucracy. Enterprise, not interference. But business can't succeed if government doesn't play its part. 'Low taxes, low inflation. Leaving people more of their own money to spend and save. Protecting them from those robber barons of the 20th century: inflation and the state.'

His speech came shortly after it was announced that the underlying inflation rate for September had slipped to the 4 per cent upper limit of the Chanellor's new target range. This was the lowest rate for underlying inflation - the retail price index excluding mortgage interest payments - since March 1988.

Despite the decline from 4.2 per cent in August, there was little sign of an imminent cut in interest rates. But financial markets still expect a reduction in the coming weeks, perhaps after the underlying inflation rate falls within the 1-4 per cent target set by Norman Lamont on Thursday. The headline rate of inflation steadied last month at 3.6 per cent.

While loyalty to the leader and an appeal for party unity won a traditionally enthusiastic conference ovation for Mr Major, there was little sign of a parliamentary truce ahead. Bill Cash, a leading backbench opponent of Maastricht, said: 'I'm absolutely delighted to hear the tremendous step forward within the hall against federalism and against the sort of principle we believe the Maastricht treaty represents.'

Cole steps down, page 2 Conference reports, page 8 Leading article, page 14 Inflation drops, page 17