Tories reopen European wound

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Douglas Hurd: 'Our interest lies in steering Europe our way. . . Whenever we have looked away from our continent over the past hundred years, we have paid a price.'

Norman Lamont: 'If Britain were not a member of the European Union today, I do not believe that there would be a case to join.' Photographs: Brian Harris and Cathy Loughran

THE FULL breadth of the Tory chasm over Europe was brutally exposed yesterday when Norman Lamont overshadowed a robust defence by Douglas Hurd of Britain's role in the EU by publicly raising the spectre of withdrawal from the community.

The exiled former Chancellor infuriated ministers on the centre and left of the party by reopening deep Tory divisions on Europe and becoming the first senior Conservative figure publicly to question the value of continuing Britain's 21 years of EU membership.

Mr Lamont unleashed his most calculated and destabilising onslaught on the Government since his dismissal 16 months ago at a fringe meeting only three hours after the Foreign Secretary warned the conference: 'Our interest lies in steering Europe our way, rather than pretending we belong to another continent. . . No-one wins an argument by kicking over the table.'

Mr Lamont's remarks were swiftly dismissed by Mr Hurd last night.

'Things have moved our way since Norman helped to negotiate the Maastrict treaty,' he said.

Declaring that the poison had gone out of the debate within the party over Europe, Mr Hurd added: 'The idea that we might as well abandon the argument because we have lost it, is completely out of date.'

In a lecture to the Selsdon group which amounted to a new manifesto for the hardest-line Eurosceptic MPs in the run up the inter-governmental conference on the EU's future in 1996, the former Chancellor accused Mr Major of 'wishful thinking' in implying that the single currency would not happen for many years, if ever.

Mr Lamont, whose speech was reinforced by an only slightly less apocalyptic salvo later from Lord Tebbit, warned that a single currency would be a 'gigantic' step towards the creation of a 'European government and a European state'. Instead, Britain should look at all the alternative options including membership of an 'outer area' of a Franco-German dominated EU or participation in the European Economic Area.

Declaring that 'one day it may mean contemplating withdrawal', Mr Lamont added, in another reference to the Prime Minister: 'It has recently been said that the option of leaving the community was unthinkable. I believe this attitude is rather simplistic.'

Privately, Major loyalists bitterly denounced Mr Lamont as 'irrelevant'. Some accused him of bitterness over his dismissal and others of a speech aimed at right-wing activists and designed to secure a new constituency when his own disappears under boundary reorganisation. But senior Tories accepted that his remarks reflect the private views of a small but significant minority, reaching as high as the Cabinet.

Mr Lamont said the danger was that the UK would concentrate on European markets to the exclusion of faster growing ones, such as Asia. He added: 'If Britain were not a member of the European Union today, I do not believe there would be a case to join.'

Mr Hurd's conference speech, which was dramatised by his announcement that he was flying last night to Kuwait to meet Gulf State foreign ministers and the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, could scarcely have contrasted more sharply with Mr Lamont's.

In a summary of his and Mr Major's determination to secure an 'open, thriving and flexible Europe', he reminded representatives: 'We are a European country with interests and instincts which stretch far beyond Europe.'

Lord Tebbit declared that the new Europe should be 'bound by treaty to do at supra-national level only that which is necessary to ensure the free movement of good services and capital'.

According to one report filtering out of a lunch held for Lady Thatcher by the Sunday Telegraph, the former Prime minister acknowedged it had been a mistake to sign the Single European Act. She said it was essential for the UK to firm up its stance for the IGC well before 1996.

Sir Geoffrey Howe last night rounded on Mr Lamont. 'I am astonished - but Norman has continued to astonish me as the months have gone by. It is the utmost folly.'

Conference, pages 6,7

Leading article, page 17

Andrew Marr, page 19

Lamont speech, page 19

(Photographs omitted)