His very own stampede

Major's declaration of beef war has left Britain's partners aghast but given his party a flickering hope. Yet it could all too easily go wrong.

As ever with John Major's government, in the end it was all down to crisis management rather than grand strategy. For weeks colleagues had been urging him to get tough over Europe's beef ban, but as late as last Tuesday morning - hours before his greatest rift with Brussels - he had made no firm decision.

Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health and one of the ministers most closely involved in the BSE issue, only learned that there was to be a "beef war" at midday. When Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, spoke to John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, at the same time, neither man even knew who was going to address the Commons that afternoon.

In Downing Street, Mr Major had decided that the one person who could not face the Commons was the hapless Agriculture minister, Douglas Hogg. Already his performance was something of a joke (as one colleague put it, he might not have been in the job for 30 months, but he was more than ready for the cull). Monday night's failure to get the EU veterinary committee to lift the ban on British beef by-products was the final straw. The tide of Tory anger was running strong. "It was very clear that Douglas Hogg was going to have enormous difficulty in addressing the Commons while remaining, at the end of his 45-minute statement, the Agriculture minister," said a senior source.

The outlook was bleak, but Mr Major decided to deal with the issue in the Commons himself. This man is nothing if not a survivor and, yet again, he defied the odds and emerged smiling. His statement, proclaiming a policy of non-co-operation with Europe, simultaneously lifted the gloom on the Conservative backbenches, stumped Tony Blair and put the Eurosceptics on the defensive. As for the Tory press, the Daily Mail, whose headline on Tuesday had read "Humiliation of Britain", now trumpeted "Major goes to war at last".

One Tory MP in a marginal seat spoke warmly of his leader for the first time in years. Suddenly, he declared, there was hope for the next election.

That hope might seem forlorn, given how long the Conservatives have been testing the lower limits of the opinion polls and how many times they have been trounced at local elections and by-elections, and yet there was no denying the change of mood among Tories last week. Has Mr Major, by accident or design, hit upon a jingoistic formula that could sneak him an election victory? Or has he stumbled into a confrontation with Europe that will merely bring another calamity down upon his head?

Amid all the hyperbole and outrage about the wickedness of our European partners, it is easy to forget how disastrously the British government has managed the beef crisis. BSE is overwhelmingly a British problem which was allowed to take hold in this country under successive Conservative administrations. Not only did ministers do too little too late, they also insisted for years that there was no risk attached to British beef.

When in March the Government was finally forced, on scientific advice, to admit what it had always denied, that there was a possible link between BSE and its human equivalent, CJD, the announcement was cocked up. The news leaked prematurely and the Government then dithered for days about its stance, waiting for further reports from scientific advisers. Then it found itself protesting on one hand that British beef was safe while on the other admitting a need to address a collapse of market confidence.

The policy-makers floundered. The Ministry of Agriculture, hardly the pinnacle of the Whitehall structure, guarded its territory jealously. It resented attempts by other departments to influence policy, even the territorial departments (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) which had a direct role.

Ministers wrangled over how many cows were to be slaughtered. On television Mr Hogg hinted at a large-scale plan, only to be slapped down by Mr Clarke the next day. Policy was technically being run in a committee chaired by Tony Newton, Leader of the House, but more seemed to emerge from Michael Heseltine's committee on policy presentation.

Whitehall veterans were appalled. One spoke of collapse at the centre of government. "Where was the Wednesday meeting of permanent secretaries telling the ministers what to say? Where was the Prime Minister's private secretary, banging heads together?"

When a direction was finally agreed - a plan to take all animals over 30 months old out of the food supply - it turned out there weren't enough abattoirs or incinerators to carry it out. Then there was an unseemly scramble among farmers to get into the culling scheme, amid allegations that dealers and abattoirs were in cahoots at the expense of the farmers.

On the European side, EU officials and member state governments were aghast. "The extraordinary thing is," one senior Brussels agriculture official remarked, "we really thought BSE was going to be a chance to defeat the British Eurosceptics. When the issue first came to a Commission meeting in March, a few commissioners, though admittedly not the two British commissioners [Sir Leon Brittan and Neil Kinnock] said this was a chance to prove to the British people what European solidarity can do. We agreed a huge programme - pounds 400m over two years - to help fund the British slaughter programme.

"Quite honestly, ever since then the Commission has bent over backwards to help the British government. We keep saying this is not a British problem, it's a European problem. But the reality is, if you look at the figures for incidence of the disease, that it is a British problem which has caused enormous difficulties for the other Europeans. And yet, despite everything, it has been turned in Britain into an anti-European issue."

The problem has been, officials say, that Britain has behaved from the beginning as if it was the only aggrieved party. It seemed to give little thought or weight to the fears of European consumers (dismissed as irrational) or the fears of continental farmers, whose trade has been wounded far worse than that of British farmers. There was no humility and there was no apology for the chaotic implementation of the measures for eradication of BSE promised from the beginning of the crisis.

"A carefully ordered British approach to regain the confidence of continental consumers and to reassure continental governments would have done wonders," one official said.

When Mr Hogg eventually produced his promised comprehensive plan of action it was dismissed by a Spanish official as "shit". "The British wanted the easing of the ban before there was clear evidence of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the crisis. Some countries, especially the Germans and Austrians, wanted a strategy in place before they did anything. Even then the Brits could have got their way on gelatin and tallow if they had courted the Portuguese or the Dutch or Belgians properly. We see no evidence that that happened," said a Commission official.

Senior Commission agriculture officials say the strategy that Britain should have adopted is the strategy it must still adopt if the crisis is ever to be resolved. "The only way forward is to peel away the ban little by little and peel away the opposition little by little. This means that the British government must draw up clear, workable, convincing proposals for declaring and certifying parts of the British herd and parts of British beef production to be BSE-free. They could perfectly well do that. We have been asking them to do that. We haven't seen anything serious so far."

In London, however, a different strategy - almost the opposite strategy - has taken hold. It began with small, informal meetings of ministers, discussing the policy vacuum and considering the possibility of getting tough with Europe. The first suggestion was a retaliatory ban on European produce or a withholding of EU contributions, but this had to be withdrawn in embarrassment because it was illegal. Backbenchers bayed for action; even centre-left MPs, particularly those with farming constituencies, were losing patience.

And the politics were pretty straightforward. As one advocate of the hard line put it: "The Conservative Party has nothing to gain electorally from the Inter-governmental Conference, and

everything to gain from saying: 'OK, there will be no IGC until you sort out the beef ban'."

Crucially, ministers on the centre-left, particularly those with leadership ambitions, were coming round to the same view. Michael Heseltine saw an opportunity to practise his "Gaullist" vision of Britain's role in Europe - in other words the pursuit of national self-interest through the EU. Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, was contemplating things his predecessor, Douglas Hurd, would never have done. Mr Dorrell also placed himself in the hawkish camp.

At this juncture Downing Street was not fully engaged. As one government source put it: "All of us were saying, 'Where's the Prime Minister in all this?'. His hand was not on the tiller."

But Mr Major was beginning to take it personally. At the Turin summit in March he had received generous support from fellow leaders and, perhaps naively, proclaimed: "I wish the Eurosceptics back in Britain could be in this room now to see how European solidarity works in practice." Embarrassed by this, Mr Major then rested his hopes in bilateral meetings with Chancellor Kohl and President Chirac. Both duly ate British beef, but neither delivered.

Then came Monday's fiasco. In the effort to get the ban on gelatin, tallow and semen lifted, Mr Hogg promised to lift the cull total from 42,000 to 80,000, but the European vets refused to oblige. In response, Mr Hogg abruptly withdrew the offer. Within 24 hours Britain had doubled its culling target and then halved it again: there could be no more vivid proof of the chaos in policy-making.

The press was bloody. One MP said: "The pressure on the backbenches was enormous. I went to my own whip and said, 'For Christ's sake, we can't go on like this.' The Daily Mail was talking about national humiliation. It was beginning to become untenable." By Tuesday lunchtime Mr Major had bitten the bullet and decided to wage his beef war.

What does it mean? British officials talk of "cumulative irritation rather than general buggeration". In principle, any decision, however footling, which requires a unanimous vote will be stopped by Britain. This will inevitably include many proposals that Britain approves of, such as the decision blocked last week on common rules for insolvency in company law.

It will include common sense actions such as co-operation on fighting civil emergencies (blocked on Thursday). Next week Britain will block a whole raft of technical decisions in the removing of internal EU trade barriers (something it enthusiastically supports).

There will, however, be no general paralysis of the EU. Delay is a fact of life in Brussels at the best of times. However, if the British action drags on for weeks and weeks, a considerable log-jam of small, technical decisions will be created and this will inevitably cause considerable annoyance in other member states.

As to whether the new British policy will bring a resolution of the beef problem closer, the betting of senior officials in Brussels is that it will not. "Either way, realistically, we are not looking at a substantial relaxation of the beef ban for many, many months," said one. "Fundamentally the solution lies with London. The real challenge is to convince European consumers, and therefore their governments, that the British beef coming into their country will be perfectly safe. Only Britain can do that. It can't be done by threats or bullying."

Brussels, and the rest of the EU, are as amazed by the latest policy turn as they were by the muddle that preceded it. "One question worth asking," said a Commission official, "is whether Mr Major made any attempt to contact his counterparts in other capitals before Monday's meeting to make it plain how much was riding on the outcome for Britain. As far as I understand he did no such thing. Then, overnight, he escalates the dispute to the political stratosphere."

Like many others, they wonder whether Mr Major is playing an electoral card, although an official who knows the British political scene dismissed this possibility. "Quite honestly, there has been no sign of a coherent strategy of any kind. They have not seemed to know what they're doing, or where they're going, even between breakfast and lunch."

AT HOME, however, Mr Major seemed to be basking in the approval of his party, and of crucial sections of the press. Crucially, Mr Clarke was on side. He accepted the new line on two conditions: first, that Mr Major did nothing illegal; second, that the tactic was designed to get an outcome to the beef dispute, and was not the prelude to a wider attack on Europe.

How Mr Major uses this new-found momentum remains the central question. He has almost certainly not decided on a general election date (and his preference probably remains April or May next year) but the events of last week have given him more options. Many MPs believe that, depending on how the polls respond, he could go to the country earlier rather than later.

A snap "beef election", with the Conservatives running a nationalistic campaign, remains unlikely. By doing so Mr Major would break his deal with Mr Clarke and test the loyalty of the party's pro-European wing. Moreover, single-issue elections rarely work; Ted Heath's 1974 gamble over the miners' strike is a case in point.

But the beef war, provided he is not seen to lose it, could prove the springboard for a recovery in Conservative fortunes. In the local elections the party polled 27 per cent, Labour 43. A big Tory surge might make a snap July election possible. More likely is a gradual improvement under which Mr Major could expect his party to be over 30 points in the polls by the summer recess, with Labour below 40. The Government usually benefits from the relative quiet of the summer break, and a good party conference and the promise of tax cuts in the Budget might narrow the gap further.

Mr Major could move his Budget into October, or merely announce its highlights at party conference before dissolving Parliament. This would avoid the need for a Queen's Speech which might - depending on the Ulster Unionists - prove difficult to get through. Alternatively, Mr Major might call an election directly after the Budget. Several other factors will feed into such a calculation: the state of the parliamentary majority and economic prospects for the next year.

But there are dangers, too. He was careful last week to give himself some room for manoeuvre in Europe, stressing that what he needs from Europe is a framework or timetable for the main beef ban to be lifted, rather than its actual removal. Ministers hope that a deal can be done at the Florence summit in four weeks' time, and pronounced a British triumph.

The sceptics, however, will keep a watchful eye on the detail. Mr Major has form in marching them up to the top of the hill, only to march them down again. One warned last week: "If he comes back with a broad framework, the right will say, 'No, hold on a minute, you can't trust these people. the ban must be lifted first, then we talk'."

On the other hand, if no agreement is reached (and the mood of the European partners at the moment is far from sympathetic), the Government faces months of gruelling trench warfare, with the sceptics constantly trying to up the tempo. In those circumstances the Sun and the Daily Mail may prove to be fickle allies for the Government.

As one Conservative source put it: "It's important that wars end well. The thing about the conflicts with Arthur Scargill and General Galtieri was that Margaret Thatcher won them. We need to get to that thanksgiving service in St Paul's, this time with the NFU in the front row. And John Major's not there yet."

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