Major puts veto at heart of Europe poll

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JOHN MAJOR last night made preservation of the British veto the centrepiece of his European election campaign, as an acrimonious first day of electioneering signalled the end of the short-lived truce between the main parties.

The Prime Minister's first rallying speech of the campaign was shot through with an unashamed appeal to patriotic sentiment. Ignoring angry denials by Labour, he insisted that both the main opposition parties were ready to put at risk Britain's powers to veto European legislation.

Mr Major was speaking in Bristol to supporters from the West Country - where the Liberal Democrats hope to gain between two and four seats. He claimed that their 'central belief' on Europe was 'to dilute our national identity'.

In terms which are bound to please Euro-sceptics, Mr Major said Britain had a monarchy founded by the kings of Wessex over 1,100 years ago.

He added: 'Our most basic belief is in the integrity of our nation and come what may, at home and in Europe, we shall maintain it.'

Mr Major said he never left Britain without his spirits sinking. But he insisted the Tories were not being 'anti-European or the awkward squad'.

Mr Major's claim that Labour was ready to abandon the veto provoked a furious response last night from Margaret Beckett, Labour's current leader, who accused the Prime Minister of revealing 'new depths of hypocrisy' She added: 'He knows that he is lying about Labour's approach to the veto but he doesn't care.'

Mr Major's speech came after a claim by Jack Cunningham, shadow Foreign Secretary, that the Tory manifesto contained '12 lies' and a counter-claim by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, that Mr Cunningham's concerted defence of Labour policy on the veto was a 'sham' and 'simply not true'.

The main policy development of the first day of a campaign shortened by the death of John Smith came when Mrs Beckett opened the door to a Labour government holding a referendum either on a single currency or on the conclusions of the 1996 inter-governmental conference on the European Union's future.

Appealing earlier to Tories not to stay at home, Mr Major warned: 'This is not some trivial opinion poll.'

Campaign reports, pages 8, 9

Leading article, letters, page 15

Andrew Marr, page 17