Mitterrand and Heath add to Major's woes: PM's views on single currency challenged - Embarrassing interview tapes published

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THE PRIME MINISTER was forced to remain on the defensive over the Maastricht treaty yesterday as both Francois Mitterrand and Sir Edward Heath pressed for the early creation of a single European currency.

With John Major already reeling from the Tory fall-out from last week's confidence vote - and his subsequent indiscretion about Cabinet 'bastards' - the interventions of the French President and the former Tory prime minister landed another body blow in the run-up to Thursday's Christchurch by-election.

In the Commons last week, the Prime Minister had been careful to advise Tory rebels that the advent of a single currency was not envisaged 'in anything remotely like the timescale previously set out'.

The French President, in London for an Anglo-French summit, challenged that view at a press conference with Mr Major yesterday. 'It would be very harmful and very sad if the remarkable progress made among the Twelve should be brought into question when the prospects before us are that in a few years from now we will have a single currency,' he said.

That brought an undiplomatic slapdown from a Foreign Office source, who said: 'It's like (President Carlos) Menem saying that one day the Falklands will be back under Argentina.'

But Sir Edward says in an article in today's Independent that the Maastricht treaty required a single currency. Attacking those who would defy its gravitational pull, he adds: 'Self-centred politicians must not be allowed to damage people's lives and their future on purely outdated nationalistic grounds.'

Sir Edward also criticises the Government for allowing 'a small group of hostile would-be hijackers' to hold it to ransom, and urges ministers to stop talking as if the EC was a colony that could be moulded to 'What the British want'. He says the Government has revived all the 'old suspicions' that all Britain wanted was a free trade area, rather than a community.

Mr Mitterrand also appeared keen to add to his host's difficulties at the post-summit press conference - by trumpeting the merits of the French Maastricht referendum. With Mr Major listening intently to the simultaneous translation being broadcast through an earphone, the President said: 'It was the French people that voted and who chose what to do . . . I am very much in favour of representative democracy, but it was a very important way of getting this firmly established in our history.'

As for inevitable questions about 'bastards', when Mr Major was asked how much longer he was going to be able to cohabit with some members of his Cabinet, he grinned. Then he patted both Mr Mitterrand and his conservative Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, on the arms and said they seemed to manage.

Asked whether he had 'apologised to the bastards', he seemed thrown, and said: 'We've been discussing Ango-French alternatives . . . Anglo-French . . . matters this morning . . . Anglo-French discussions.' The evident embarrassment was aggravated last night when the Daily Mirror published the full text of the bootlegged 'bastard' video tape.

The Sun trumped that with extracts from a tape of off-the-record chat between Mr Major and Jonathan Dimbleby after a BBC election phone-in last year - in which the Prime Minister spoke of three factors explaining why Tory strength was being underestimated. There was, he said, the 'high fuck-up factor', with Tory voters telling pollsters one thing and canvassers another; the 'bugger-you-all factor'; and 'the nigger in the woodpile is the local factor'.

Robert Phillis, BBC deputy director-general, told Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party, that no evidence had been found that a BBC employee had leaked Mr Major's off-screen 'bastards' conversation last Friday - although the Election Call leak could be more difficult to explain.

Meanwhile, Tory loyalists from the backbench Positive European Group sent a protest letter to Mr Major, saying if 'the small minority of Euro-rebels' did not toe the party line, 'we strongly urge that there should be no attempt to accommodate demands which would be unacceptable to the great majority of the party'.

Off-record transcript, page 6

Bank chief demand, page 10

Edward Heath, page 18

Andrew Marr, page 19

German rate cut hopes, page 21