There was outrage from farmers and Tory calls for the sacking of Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, who was labelled "hopeless" byWilliam Hague. The Opposition leader accused the Government of allowing France to stick "two fingers" at Britain.
The fresh setback for Mr Blair, who earlier in the week predicted the Anglo-French beef war would be over "in days", was generated by a BBC interview with the French consumer affairs minister, Marylise LeBranchu. She appeared to suggest - although this was later denied - that France would prefer to be dragged through the courts than risk the health of its citizens.
The Prime Minister's spokesman said last night: "The contacts we have had with the French indicate to us that they want to get this resolved and they want to get the ban lifted."
Embarrassingly for Mr Blair, Paris is today expected to miss the first of two deadlines set by Brussels for the removal of its embargo and there are growing fears in London that chances of an early deal could be wrecked by the detail of French demands.
Particularly alarming is a new French suggestion that all shipments of British beef should be traceable to the farm of origin, a requirement which poses immense practical difficulties in England and Wales although not in Northern Ireland.
Senior French officials rejected the charge that Paris had raised the stakes or dramatically toughened its terms. French cabinet ministers met with Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister, last night to discuss possible terms for a lifting of the ban and were searching for room for manoeuvre.
A deal may yet be possible before the European Commission meets to decide whether to prosecute France next Tuesday.
In heated Commons exchanges, Mr Hague taunted Mr Blair and said: "On Monday you gave the French the Third Way and on Wednesday they've given you the two fingers!"
French officials insisted that Ms LeBranchu's remarks were taken out of the context of a conciliatory interview.
The minister said that it might be necessary to continue the talks beyond next Tuesday's deadline. If legal proceedings had to be formally started by Brussels while the talks continued, there was no reason to become "excited" about it.Reuse content