Major launches leadership campaign with a gaffe

PM in attack on single currency 'Eurocrap'
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JOHN MAJOR yesterday astonished Tory party constituency chairmen by describing moves towards a single currency as "Eurocrap."

The Prime Minister's outburst, on the eve of a European Union summit of heads of government in Cannes, came in private, after he made a strong rallying speech to open the Conservative leadership election, warning potential backbench rebels that "the time for self-indulgence is long gone".

But Mr Major's appeal for support from MPs, which heralded a shift to the right in his rhetoric, was overshadowed by a Conservative Central Office cock-up strongly reminiscent of the "Bastardgate" fiasco in Downing Street two years ago.

After Mr Major had delivered his speech, the television cameras were switched off for what was supposed to be a private question-and-answer session with the 180 local party chiefs gathered in Central Office.

However, unknown to the Prime Minister, a live radio feed was still running, and his vehement attack on concerted steps towards a single currency in Europe was taped. As news leaked out, Robin Cook, the Labour spokesman on foreign affairs, accused Mr Major of using "the language of the playground".

In the private session, the Prime Minister turned his fire on Eurosceptics for demanding that he give an assurance that he will never sign for a single currency.

"I could stick my neck above the parapet and say I am never going to do that, and say how horrible people have been suggesting that. But in the meantime, am I going to be able to have any influence? Do I stay at the side like a spectre at the feast?"

Then, in a clear put-down of Europhiles in his party, Mr Major insisted there was "no question" of all EU countries going ahead with a single currency. "Hands up, those who think Greece, Portugal and countries like that are remotely going to be ready to go into a single currency in their lifetime?" he challenged constituency stalwarts.

"Of course, a small group could go ahead, but they are now going to have to address quite different questions - not this uniform Eurocrap that we will all go together whatever happens." There was laughter and applause before he went on: "They are going to have to address the real question of what happens if a small number of nations go ahead and the rest don't."

At this point, Central Office staff realised his words were going out to a BBC van in Smith Square, and pulled the plugs. However, "Eurocrap" seems certain to enter the political vocabulary and to embarrass Mr Major when he meets fellow EU leaders at Cannes.

In July 1993, Mr Major was embarrassed by similar revelations of an accidentally taped conversation in which he described three of his Eurosceptic Cabinet ministers as "bastards".

As Eurosceptics yesterday debated whom to field as a candidate in the leadership election, there was continued silence from John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales. He has still to endorse the Prime Minister, but has promised a statement tomorrow. Mr Redwood was urged by the Eurosceptic Tony Marlow to contest the leadership himself. Mr Marlow argued: "He would be an even more formidable than Norman Lamont. He is part of the present Cabinet, and his motives are less likely to be subject to misrepresentation."

The Prime Minister, in his public speech at Central Office, declared himself angry at "a tide of trivia, of rumour, of insubstantial stories and of froth that has been drowning out the real political issues".

He added: "I am not fighting to secure re-election as leader of this party because I enjoy being driven around in cars, or in order to savour a few more state dinners, or because I like being late for the Lord's Test match with the West Indies, or because I take pleasure in the trappings of office. I am fighting because - rightly or wrongly - I believe I understand how the people of this country live their lives."

Mr Major disclosed that Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, will announce cash vouchers for parents to buy nursery education at the school of their choice, state or private. He also promised a White Paper on housing this week, aimed at creating a further 1.5 million home- owners in the next decade. It will also crack down on "queue-jumping" for public housing - a reference to single-parent families. And he pledged to "revolutionise" school sport, with "new support, new targets and new facilities".

By late afternoon, there was still no word from Norman Lamont, widely tipped as an anti-Major stalking horse. But one right-wing MP, John Carlisle, said: "I think it seems fairly clear that Norman will stand." He told Radio 4's Today programme: "I think it is absolutely right that he does. This must be a heavyweight contest."

A veteran Eurosceptic MP reckoned Mr Major's chances of being re-elected leader as "five, or maybe only four, out of ten. He is not fighting from a position of great strength."