Howell rounds on `rubber-stamping' of US policies

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Political Editor

John Major will today be confronted with dissent from within senior Tory ranks for failing to mount a sufficiently "robust" and independent foreign policy and for "rubber- stamping" US initiatives.

In an unexpectedly critical speech, David Howell, a former Cabinet minister and the influential chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, will call for Malcolm Rifkind, the new Foreign Secretary, to launch a radical view of foreign policy.

He will cite British stances on Bosnia, China, Russia and the EU in the speech to the Cranleigh Conservative Association and say there is growing "unease" about "key aspects of British foreign policy". He says: "We are still too ready to go along with other countries' schemes, interests and projects."

In a text released last night, Mr Howell says the UK has been "much too quick" to back US diplomacy in the former Yugoslavia "quite uncritically". He says the latest Nato air strikes should be part of a "sustained and widened strategy" to defeat Serb aggression - which should include the arming of Bosnian presidency forces. Britain was also participating "much too readily" in the UN conference on women in Beijing - when it is "far from certain that this sort of event assists free and stable societies or reinforces the values and virtues we support".

He accuses the Government of being "too ready to appease Russia" over issues like her future membership of Nato. Mr Howell adds: "That may be the American view, but again, we should be more careful not always to be rubber-stamping US policy which is often far from our own interests."

Mr Howell also takes up a more familiar Tory theme that Britain should not be "so hopelessly preoccupied with the EU" when the main growth in global capital assets and investment is in the US, Africa and "above all" Asia. He says a single currency threatens to "divide and embitter the great Single Market Europe which Britain has always supported".

He adds: "Why has the Commonwealth been so neglected? Why have the facts of our colossal global economic reach been so diffidently paraded if at all?"

Ministers will argue that the latter point was addressed in a series of foreign policy seminars convened by Mr Major in the run-up to the Britain and the World conference run by Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, earlier this year.

But his critique of British foreign policy will strike a chord with some mainstream Tories who privately contrast British foreign policy with what they see as the more self-interested approach of the new French government led by President Chirac.