Thatcher flays Tory wounds: Lamont exposes depth of party rift over Maastricht after former leader's twin onslaught

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The Independent Online
DEEP Conservative wounds over Europe were kept open last night by Baroness Thatcher in a double-barrelled blast against John Major's Maastricht treaty agreement. She called it a 'ruinous straitjacket' that would hand over British democratic rights to Brussels bureaucrats.

In an article for the European newspaper, timed to coincide with her arrival at the Brighton Tory conference, she said Maastricht represented 'the vision of yesterday', and was incompatible with 'our constitutional freedoms' because it would put the country 'on the conveyor belt to a single currency'.

The second blast came in an interview with the Spanish ABC newspaper. She reiterated her call for a referendum and said the Conservatives were 'deeply divided' over Maastricht. 'The majority of us believe that the principal duty of the Conservative Party is to defend our constitution.'

John Major, intercepted during a conference walkabout, would not respond to his predecessor's onslaught, saying: 'I am not going to make snap judgements on speeches Mrs (sic) Thatcher may have made or articles she may have written.'

But in his conference wind-up speech tomorrow, he is expected to take on his critics in direct, uncoded language.

He said yesterday that the Cabinet was united and added: 'I think much of the opposition that we've seen in this conference has nothing whatsoever to do with the Maastricht treaty. Some of it has to do with great concerns that are actually addressed and removed in the Maastricht treaty.'

In a pointed reference to Lady Thatcher's role in the move towards EC centralisation, he added: 'Some of it relates to earlier treaties . . . the Single European Act.' While that remark illustrated the breadth of the gulf that has grown between Mr Major and Lady Thatcher since he succeeded her two years ago, the real depth of the party rift was exposed when Norman Lamont, seen by some as one of the Thatcherites' strongest Cabinet allies, addressed a fringe meeting.

Flatly contradicting Lady Thatcher, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said: 'The Maastricht treaty does not compel Britain to take part in the establishment of a single bank and a single currency . . . . The treaty safeguarded Britain's interests and achieved Britain's goals.'

With Lady Thatcher promising to join the leadership on the platform for today's debate on the economy, the Chancellor will face the tricky task of placating both the party grass roots and the markets against a background of severe economic uncertainty.

Mr Lamont will begin to put some flesh on the bones of his alternative economic policy, but he intends to supply more meat at a Commons select committee next Monday. Treasury sources said, however, that the full detail of economic policy, including monetary targets, would not be delivered before his Mansion House speech on 29 October.

Lady Thatcher's attack also provoked her old opponents to come out fighting. Michael Heseltine - who had earlier won a conference ovation with a fierce defence of Mr Major's European policy - condemned her intervention as unhelpful.

'I do not want to use pejorative language,' the President of the Board of Trade told Channel 4 News. 'But it is noticeable that Cabinet ministers who actually advocated and supported policies when they had to make the really lonely decisions about Britain's self-interest seem to have forgotten fairly quickly the advice they gave to Parliament.'

He said Lady Thatcher had always had the greatest reservations about Europe, but all her decisions in government were made to 'take us further and deeper into Europe'.

Sir Edward Heath went farther. He told the same programme that there were three Cabinet ministers who shared her welcome for sterling's withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) and he added: 'They really ought to get out of the Cabinet because they don't agree with government policy.'

Although he mentioned Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, by name, he was thought to have had Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, and Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in his line of fire.

As for Lady Thatcher, her predecessor as party leader said: 'We've always known these were her views. She hates Europe; she hates all Europeans. But if one comes to examine the points that she puts forward, they bear no relationship to reality whatever.' Sir Edward told BBC 2's Newsnight he would refuse to sit on the conference platform with her. In her article for the European, Lady Thatcher said: 'The ERM and Maastricht are inextricably linked.' Neither represented what in any way was best for British interests. But while the Government had escaped the 'unbearable confines' of the ERM, there was no 'escape hatch' from Maastricht.

Mr Lamont said last night that he welcomed Maastricht because it marked 'great progress' in the move away from the 'bossing' and 'persecution' of Brussels.

(Photograph omitted)

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