Tories slug it out on Europe: Tebbit wins anti-Maastricht hearts at conference but Hurd rallies party's votes behind the Prime Minister

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NORMAN TEBBIT took the Conservative Party conference by storm yesterday with a direct appeal to an impassive John Major to jettison the Maastricht treaty.

But while the former party chairman won the hearts of a vociferous third of party representatives, he signally failed to win their votes and did not dent the Prime Minister's determination to carry on regardless with the treaty's parliamentary ratification.

Although the conference gave Lord Tebbit's clarion call a sustained ovation that painfully embarrassed the leadership, there was every sign that the stern warning of Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, against a party break-up over the Maastricht agreement had been heeded.

Amid scenes reminiscent of past Labour conference bust-ups, many of the pro-EC speeches were heckled and barracked. But Mr Hurd took on his critics with the bravest and most powerful speech of his career.

He warned that the Conservative Party had, in the 19th century, broken itself over the Corn Laws and tariff reform and, on each occasion, had excluded itself from power for a decade.

'Our party, the Conservative Party, could break itself over Europe - with consequences which would deeply damage Britain and give comfort only to our opponents,' he said. 'Let us decide to give that madness a miss.'

Even Lord Tebbit responded to that instinctive appeal to Tory unity last night. He told BBC television: 'We can have our rows, and after it, whether Maastricht is stopped in its tracks or whether it's ratified, John Major will be the Prime Minister and I will support him either way.'

But his rip-roaring conference speech pulled few punches. Lord Tebbit said he hoped the Prime Minister would resist calls for the dumping of Norman Lamont, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because Mr Lamont had not taken sterling into the European exchange rate mechanism in 1990 - a vicious swipe at Mr Major, who had been Chancellor at the time.

'The cost in lost jobs, in bankrupt firms, repossessed homes, in the terrible wounds inflicted on industry, has been savage.' He then added, with the steely

sarcasm he has turned into an art-form: 'But we have established our credentials as good Europeans.'

Lord Tebbit went on to prompt pantomime-style responses from his audience, asking them whether they wanted a single currency, and Brussels meddling in immigration controls, foreign affairs, industrial policy, education and defence - each question greeted with a chorus of 'No'.

'Do you want to be citizens of a European union?' he asked to a final roar of opposition. 'Now is the time to negotiate anew. Kohl and Mitterrand no longer speak for Europe. John Major should raise the flag of patriots of all the states of Europe.

'Let's launch the drive for Maastricht Two; a treaty with no mention of more power to Brussels, no mention of economic and monetary and political union. It's a task in which I stand ready to join John Major whenever he is ready to begin.'

But while Lord Tebbit's supporters cheered him to the echo, the Prime Minister remained unmoved, refusing even to join Richard Ryder, his Chief Whip, in polite applause.

In his skilful reply, Mr Hurd reminded the representatives that the debate had thrown up no huge differences of principle. Few, if any, argued for withdrawal from the Community, and no one supported membership of a European super-state.

They all rejected a centralised Europe and wanted a reversal of Brussels bureaucracy and unnecessary interference; they all wanted a wider Community that would eventually take in the new democracies of central Europe, a free-trading and open Europe.

Mr Hurd said the Maastricht agreement had signposted the path opened up by Britain, away from centralisation - the principle of subsidiarity that was to be explored further at next week's Birmingham summit.

'We want this idea of minimum interference to run through the workings of all the institutions of the Community. We must identify which legislation should be scrapped and which proposals now on the table should instead be sent to the knacker's yard.'

Mr Hurd warned: 'We are winning the arguments. Now is not the time to kick over the table.'

He suggested later that yesterday's debate could strengthen his arm in negotiations for greater EC decentralisation. 'The weather has changed,' he said.

However, he added that the conference's response to Lord Tebbit's somewhat 'bitter' contribution had been more sound than substance. 'Those who clap against are always noisier than those who clap for; it's one of the rules of politics . . . Don't be taken in by a noisy minority.'

Sir Norman Fowler, party chairman, said: 'Norman made the kind of speech you would expect Norman to make. But I think the significance of the debate was that he didn't get the vote.'

Lord Tebbit was not the only former party chairman to kick over the EC traces yesterday. Kenneth Baker told a lunchtime fringe meeting of the Young Conservatives that he would vote against the Maastricht treaty in its present form.

Without legally binding changes, including a binding treaty amendment on subsidiarity, he said that he could 'do no other' than vote against the ratification legislation that will be the focus of the next stage of the Tory battle over Europe.

(Photographs omitted)