Cabinet struggle to preserve unity

The Europe Debate: Were expectations of success for policy of non-cooperation over-optimistic?
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Indy Politics
Yesterday's hardline statement by Jacques Santer, the European Commission President, that Britain's "absurd" disruption of crucial business had no place in a Union based on the rule of law and solidarity, will send tremors through a Cabinet which had, at least temporarily, united around the policy of non-cooperation.

It is not what most ministers claimed to expect and at least one senior Cabinet minister was musing yesterday, before hearing the news from Brussels, that the policy was working well. Not only, the minister insisted, had our European partners well understood the tactic, but it had helped to concentrate minds and stood every chance of leading eventually to the solution Britain wanted, a realistic programme for lifting the beef ban.

The calculation, the minister explained, was that at present the stirritant for our partners; but they were keenly aware that if it went on until October it would seriously begin to foul up EU business. And this the partners were anxious to avoid.

That suddenly looks an over-optimistic prognosis. It may be that it will simply lead to a spate of clandestine negotiation which will end - possibly as soon as the Florence summit in three weeks - in a deal. But to understand how the varying ministerial forces will now deploy in response the President's spectacular piece of brinkmanship, it is necessary first to see how it was arrived at.

It has recently become clear that Alastair Goodlad, the Tory Chief Whip, played a prominent part in ensuring senior ministers signed up to John Major's decision a fortnight ago to embark on non-cooperation.

It was not merely that Mr Goodlad warned the Prime Minister that if Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, went empty handed to announce to Parliament that Britain had failed to lift the beef derivatives ban but then added doggedly that things were still moving our way, he would be subjected to a mauling by Tory backbenchers.

It is also now clear that Mr Goodlad played some part in underlining the gravity of the situation to Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor. There was a sort of running meeting at Downing Street on the morning of 21 May, with senior Cabinet members passing in and out of the room. But the Treasury has made no secret of the fact that Mr Clarke saw Mr Goodlad as well as Mr Major before giving his imprimatur to the strategy.

Part of Mr Goodlad's strength in this sort of crisis is that as a Major loyalist and politician with strong pro-European credentials, he can be exonerated of any hint of Eurosceptic posturing. Moreover, colleagues say he was worried not only about Eurosceptic criticism of the Government but about menacing grumblings from some of those mainstream Tory shire knights and others who have big farming constituencies and were unimpressed by the Ministry of Agriculture's handling of the crisis: Sir Tom King, Sir Peter Hordern, Sir James Spicer and the former Cabinet minister John MacGregor are all said to be in this group.

Mr Goodlad's word, therefore, weighed heavily with ministers - and not just Mr Clarke. Moreover, it is not that Mr Clarke has no stomach for a dust up with Europe, whatever his Eurosceptic critics may say. Moreover, he approved the strategy within hours, in contrast to the time it took to convert him to a commitment to a single- currency referendum. But he would have been anxious to ensure that the strategy was necessary, and also to ensure that by agreeing to it he was warding off more potentially self- destructive options such as withholding EU contributions.

He is also unlikely to want the tactic prolonged a moment longer than it has to be. And in this he no doubt has considerable support within the Cabinet. But here's the rub. For there are several on the right of the Cabinet who could be less inimical to a long-drawnout standoff and certainly would have countenanced sterner measures.

Take Michael Howard, for example. The Home Secretary has been promoting an explosive little Cabinet paper which would mean amending the 1972 European Communities Act to remove the obligation, and the right, of British courts to enforce European law. Mr Howard pointed out to his colleagues as the crisis built up last month that if enacted quickly that would actually help Britain defy the beef ban - for example by exporting beef to South Africa. A British court would no longer be able to rule against such action.

Against this background Mr Major faces his most testing time if, despite Mr Santer's comments yesterday, the EU finally offers some sort of framework for lifting the beef ban. If he holds out for better terms he risks alienating his Chancellor and his pro-European allies. If he accepts something too "floppy" for the right, he risks fresh strife with the Eurosceptics.

Some senior Tories are warily saying that Labour could have a crucial role at this stage. If Tony Blair were tempted to draft an Opposition motion- containing, for example, a blanket condemnation of the Government's handling of the beef crisis, Eurosceptic backbenchers angry at what they see as the inadequacy of the deal may be equally tempted to support him. Some senior Labour pro-Europeans would not like him to do something as opportunistic; and it may not happen.

The other crucial variable could be the role of Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary. His officials are already worried by the impact of non-cooperation on EU foreign policy. Blocking enlargement moves, or monitors for the forthcoming Bosnian elections, appalls some in the Foreign Office. But it does not follow that Mr Rifkind will heed their advice.

The best bet must be that, despite all the pessimism engendered by Mr Santer's statement yesterday, Mr Major will succeed in forcing through a deal which falls well short of what the fervent Eurosceptics might want; and that all but the hardest-line backbenchers will sign up to it with varying degrees of reluctance. But it will be touch and go.

Letters, page 13

Watching the moves: Key players in the game of beating the ban

Alastair Goodlad, Chief Whip: Rapidly emerging as a key figure at John Major's side in the present crisis. Played a critical part in emphasising a fortnight ago to Mr Major and other colleagues the hoplessness of allowing Douglas Hogg to be thrown to the wolves with nothing to report except yet another rebuff in the battle to get the derivatives ban lifted. Especially sensitive to manistream backbench opinion from Tory shire knights seriously unhappy about the beef ban and the Ministry of Agriculture's handling of the crisis. Will be pivotal in advising Mr Major over the impact of any deal on the Commons.

Malcolm Rifkind, Foreign Secretary: Although his background is broadly pro-European, has shown signs of moving towards the Eurosceptic centre of the party - for example, by opposing a single currency. Officials, instinctively wary of bust-ups with the EU, will be agitating for an early deal with Brussels. But how Rifkind responds to their advice will be crucial. Seen by disappointed pro-Europeans as one of a group of ministers - including Stephen Dorrell and William Waldegrave - reinventing themselves as sceptics with an eye to rightwards party drift after the election. And for Dorrell and Rifkind, their own chances of leadership.

Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor: Consistent pro-European-though not a man to shirk a bust up with the EU when necessary. He was persuaded swiftly a fortnight ago to back strategy but has also repeatedly emphasised it is a temporary tactic to realise an achievable goal. Would not want what Douglas Hurd has called protracted "trench warfare" with Europe. Other strong pro-Europeans such as Sir George Young, John Gummer and Sir Patrick Mayhew likely to take their lead from him. But remember Michael Heseltine - less publicly vociferous recently than Clarke but still as instinctively pro-European.

Michael Howard, Home Secretary: Has rapidly emerged as the leading Cabinet figure on the right in the debate over the future of Europe - even though Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo have in the past been assumed to take harder line than he does. Has serious Eurosceptic street cred as a long-time opponent of a single currency. Has been agitating for some form of constitutional measure to limit the reach of European law in Britain. Vetoed 10 EU measures, with some relish, on Tuesday in accordance with non-co-operation. Has told friends he wants settlement but is expected to look at small print carefully.