First round to Mr Blair

The French are isolated in Europe - but can the Prime Minister force them to make a complete climbdown?
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Indy Politics

If we are to get leadership, direction and purpose back in Britain, let the British people decide and let this weak and vacillating Government go," the leader of the Opposition stormed from the Despatch Box during furious exchanges over that most bitter of subjects - beef.

If we are to get leadership, direction and purpose back in Britain, let the British people decide and let this weak and vacillating Government go," the leader of the Opposition stormed from the Despatch Box during furious exchanges over that most bitter of subjects - beef.

The Prime Minister, rising to his feet, knew that his hamstrung administration was losing in Europe and losing at home, as the beef crisis and the crippling ban on exports worsened. Less than a year later he packed his bags and left Downing Street for a nearby cricket ground.

Last week, the man who had led the assault that dark day in November 1996 found himself on the other side of the Commons chamber - Tony Blair was in John Major's shoes, forced to tell an equally fierce leader of the Opposition why he had failed to get the beef ban lifted in the face of an intransigent French government.

But, despite all the fury, the media backlash, the accusations and recriminations, the echoes of 1996 were still faint. The difference? Tony Blair, with his policy of "positive engagement" in Europe, played nicely.

Rather than firing salvoes at Brussels or Paris, he stuck rigidly to the boundaries set by science and the law. He cleverly left it to the Tories to call for boycotts and counter-bans. And even when his own agriculture minister Nick Brown let his emotional attachment to his brief spill over into a personal boycott of French goods, he pledged to continue sipping Chardonnay with the best of them - whether it was Australian or French, he just wouldn't say.

Only time will tell if his positive engagement policy will pay long-term dividends for Britain's struggling farmers. It is now up to the French to capitulate and end their illegal ban on British beef, following the unanimous rejection by the EU's scientific steering committee of their claims that it was not safe to eat. The 16-member committee of scientists concluded that regulations for British beef did not need to be revised or tightened as the French had demanded.

A difficult month abroad has left Mr Blair and his Government relatively untarnished at home. For, unlike his predecessor, Mr Blair has his army of backbenchers right behind him. It is not in the Labour mindset to use beef as a means of forcing his hand to renegotiate Britain's position in Europe. He has no powerful Eurosceptic wing intent on making a practical problem a political one.

Unfortunately for the Tories, they had such a wing then and still do; and the Labour Government are determined not to let them forget it.

The message from Brussels arrived in the "war room", the ministerial office on the eighth floor of the Maff building, at about 4.45pm on Friday, and, amid transcripts of key phone calls and telexes from embassies, there was only one piece of paper that mattered. "Everyone was really chuffed and then rushed out to talk to the world," an aide to Mr Brown said. It was clear that part of their message would be to draw a firm distinction between their winning formula and the "extremism" of William Hague's Tory party.

"It makes the Conservative position look absolutely absurd," the aide said. "On the one hand William Hague was calling on the French to obey the EU scientists, and on the other the Tories were calling on the British Government to ignore our scientists and impose a ban on French imports of meat.

"It's unravelling very quickly and is just based on them being anti-European and economic protectionists. They should have been aware of the strength of the case we have and more confident that if we played by the rules, we would get the result we wanted."

The question now is: has it worked? Has the British cool called the bluff of the fiery French? And will the events of the past month make the Government stronger in Britain and in Europe? The answer is on hold for the next few days at least. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and his agriculture minister Jean Glavany are both in the West Indies, and the European Commission, which will be responsible for enforcing the committee's ruling, has a two-day holiday tomorrow and Tuesday.

Maff is now confident of victory - though determined not to call it one. Mr Brown's aide said: "It doesn't look like they have got any way out so we have every confidence, and there has been a little bit of softening in the French position in the last few days."

At home, the farming community has stood shoulder to shoulder with unlikely allies in the Labour Government. Its battle to secure a future for beef farmers appears to have been won by its new-found friends, and success in finally lifting the damaging beef ban after years of turmoil must be seen as a huge coup in every farm in Britain.

And in Europe, it is now the French who find themselves isolated, the political victims of a beef crisis which has already claimed lives, jobs and reputations. Mr Blair, however, has won one of the most significant tactical victories of his administration so far. But an even tougher test awaits him: can he use his influence in Europe to persuade the French to back down completely?

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