Ministers lay down law to Euro-rebels: Opponents of Maastricht told to back Major on Europe and warned against 'forging weapons' for French and German competitors

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The Independent Online
FOUR of John Major's most trusted colleagues launched an onslaught against the Tory Maastricht rebels yesterday. And today the Prime Minister will develop the party unity theme when he addresses a Harrogate meeting of Conservative activists.

Mr Major is also expected to return to the question of law and order, and to deliver an upbeat message on the economy.

In advance of his arrival yesterday at the Conservative Central Council meeting, some of his most heavyweight lieutenants demanded that the refuseniks call off their Commons campaign of sabotage. The slow progress on the Maastricht Bill was harming Britain's interests, they said.

In what many in the party will view as a belated joint offensive to lay down the law, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, and Sir Norman Fowler, party chairman, all called on the rebels to fall into line behind the Prime Minister.

Later, at a pro-Europe fringe meeting, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, said Mr Major was undoing the centralising moves in Europe set in train by Baroness Thatcher and Lord Tebbit. Describing the parliamentary debate as 'unreal' and involving 'surreal Monty Pythonesque exchanges on the floor of the Commons', Mr Clarke said Maastricht had not moved great areas of competence into the community.

Speaking at a press briefing, Sir Norman stopped short of calling for rebels to be deselected or lose the party whip. But he made clear that the majority of the party were tired of the arguments. 'Conservative politics are not an a la carte menu,' he said in a speech.

'The Prime Minister who won us that historic fourth election victory deserves our support in return. And unity must be maintained at all levels of our party in the constituencies, in the council chambers, in the European Parliament - and let us make no bones about it, among our members of Parliament at Westminster, too.'

Mr Hurd told the meeting: 'We are all weary with the argument about Maastricht. The argument should have been over months ago. It should be brought to an end before the end of this summer. The debate is necessary, but so long as it lingers on, our party is divided, our country unable to pull its weight. It's in the national interest that we ratify the treaty. Let's get on with it.'

'Sinking' the treaty would reduce ministers to 'bit-part players' in Community development.

The Foreign Secretary said Britain had had almost 100 hours of parliamentary debate. 'We aim to complete ratification by the summer. This is not a parliamentary game to be played out on the basis of personal feuds, regrets or prejudices, regardless of the consequences for Britain.'

If the treaty were sunk, inward investment from foreign companies would suffer. 'They would see us as half in, half out of Europe,' Mr Hurd said.

Mr Heseltine said most Conservatives had voted against the party at one time or another. 'But that's not what we are talking about. Day after day the Labour Party play games with our parliamentary procedure. But they weren't elected to govern. We were.

'We must show ourselves worthy of that trust . . . the overwhelming impression that is being put about is that Britain's European credentials are now suspect. In plain language that means investment, jobs, competitive advantage all put at risk.'

Warning against 'forging weapons' for French and German competitors, Mr Heseltine said: 'What possible gain is there for us if they can parade the antics of the House of Commons week after week - bogged down in a rerun of arguments that we as a party resolved in our commitment to the British people just 11 months ago.'

In a further damage limitation exercise after the Prime Minister's hasty repudiation of seemingly anti-Thatcher remarks in this week's Independent interview, Sir Norman said that week in, week out, Mr Major had been 'wiping the floor' with John Smith at Prime Minister's Questions.

At the earlier press briefing, Sir Norman insisted there was no 'mood of depression' among delegates. 'I think what you can feel is that they have come through quite a difficult time in the past few months but that things are now turning. Not only are you getting an economic recovery but you're also getting the beginning of a political recovery as well.'

Party members felt that a corner had been turned, he added.

League tables for police, page 2

Tories at Harrogate, page 8

Leading article, page 14