Tory MPs dance to Goldsmith's tune

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The Independent Online
Sir James Goldsmith yesterday cast his long shadow over a divided and apprehensive Tory party when William Cash, leader of the biggest Commons revolt yet against government European policy, was bitterly attacked for taking funds from the billionaire tycoon.

Seventy-eight Tory MPs backed a symbolic Ten-Minute Rule Bill promoted by Mr Cash which sought a referendum designed to unstitch the 1993 Maastricht treaty and restore powers vested in Brussels to Westminster.

The vote in favour of the Bill was significantly less than the sensational 100 some of his supporters had been predicting. But it was larger than the 66 who backed Iain Duncan-Smith's Bill two months ago seeking to repatriate powers of the European Court of Justice and is a powerful and embarrassing testimony to the strength of Tory Europhobia that John Major faces as he struggles to resolve the confrontation with the European Union over beef.

The Prime Minister was angrily attacked last night by the pro-European Tory Edwina Currie for his refusal to condemn Mr Cash and his supporters in advance of yesterday's debate despite repeated invitations to do so by Tony Blair, the Labour leader. She said "the tail is wagging the dog a bit now".

But the Tory pro-Europeans reserved their main fire for Mr Cash, who admits receiving "research and organisational assistance" from the Goldsmith funded European Foundation, which he chairs. Mr Cash declined to disclose the monetary value of the help he receives but added "the fact that [Sir James] may welcome and support my Bill has nothing to do with it".

The Tory MP Quentin Davies, vice-chairman of the European Movement, proposed that the funding from Sir James, who has put pounds 20m into the Referendum Party, threatening fragile majorities in a score of Tory constituencies, should be referred to Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life.

Mr Davies said Mr Cash owed his colleagues an explanation "as to how he found it possible to reconcile being a loyal Member of Parliament and to receiving political funding from the head of a rival political party". Sir Edward Heath, the former prime minister, said the funding of Mr Cash by a "French MEP who lives in Mexico" was "abominable".

Sir James welcomed the vote and pledged to continue funding the European Foundation. "I've been funding it for years long before the Referendum Party, almost as long as I have been funding the Conservative Party." The vote would be an "element" in deciding where his party fielded candidates at the general election.

The Tory ranks behind the Bill were augmented by 14 Eurosceptic Labour MPs, two Liberal Democrats and five Ulster Unionists. Robert Banks, the outgoing Tory MP for Harrogate, was the sole vote against after the main parties organised an abstention operation.

Mr Blair warned Mr Major that if "he carries on running from them, they will carry on chasing him. And the loser will be Britain - our jobs, our industry our influence".

Mr Major was said to be "relaxed" over an outcome he declared would not change policy. He reaffirmed that Britain's role lay within the European Union, fighting for the sort of EU that was amenable to it.

In the Commons, Mr Cash said it was not about whether Britain should be in or out of Europe. He claimed the beef crisis was "symptomatic of the deeper malaise affecting Europe, including German domination, which looks like leaving Britain on the outer rim of a federal Europe".

The Labour MP Tony Banks, the sole opposing speaker in yesterday's brief debate, said Mr Cash was "totally disingenuous" in saying it was not his intention to secure withdrawal from the EU. He said he did not oppose a referendum but did not want the House dictated to "by a rich greengrocer" - Sir James.

In an exclusive interview with the Independent today Paddy Ashdown blames the "crisis of democracy" for both the influence of Sir James and the Euro-sceptics.