Heath defies party's Euro-sceptics

Inside Parliament
Click to follow
Indy Politics
Sir Edward Heath yesterday warned the Prime Minister that the task of negotiating for Britain would be made "impossible" if the Government bowed to the Euro-sceptics and went ahead with a White Paper on Europe.

Heckled by Tory sceptics, during a Commons speech on European Union, the former prime minister also advocated joining a European single currency "as soon as possible".

He visibly squirmed at the isolationist boasting of Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, but it is Sir Edward, the Father of the Commons and of British membership of the community, who appears isolated in the post- Maastricht Tory party.

Reinforcing the belief that sceptics are now the tail that wags the Government dog, within hours of the Europhobic Sir Teddy Taylor commending the idea of a White Paper on the Today programme, John Major told MPs he was considering publishing one which would set out Britain's position on issues to come before next year's Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) on the future of the Union.

But Sir Edward Heath appealed to the Prime Minister "under no circumstances" to make a statement on the Government position. "I have had many, many years of international negotiations and five years of negotiating in Europe. It is impossible for any prime minister to lay down beforehand what he is going to do."

He backed the social chapter and the minimum wage, saying the effect of both had been "grossly exaggerated", and said the sooner a single currency was created, the better.

With the IGC agenda due for discussion at the Madrid summit next week, the Foreign Secretary said Britain would welcome a conference that strengthened necessary, practical co-operation and showed "a renewed determination that the EU should stay out of areas where it isn't necessary".

He said it was clear that if monetary union was to go ahead on 1 January 1999, only a minority of states would be ready. "There is a crucial need for work to begin now, not in 1997 or 1998, as to what will be the implications for the relationship between the "ins" and the "outs" in such a situation.

Mr Rifkind seemed to think his great coup of the day was in interventions on Robin Cook, his Labour shadow - cheered by Tory backbenchers as showing a "split" between Mr Cook and Tony Blair who has promised he would "never" allow a Labour government to be isolated in Europe.

Mr Cook said Labour would be prepared to use the veto for decisions on budgetary policy, taxation, external border controls and foreign and security issues. Didn't this mean Labour could be "isolated" in Europe, Mr Rifkind demanded, closing his semantic trap.

"There are occasions in all our political lives when one has to opt for isolation," Mr Cook replied. "But it should not be - as it is with this Conservative government - an ambition for the conduct of their foreign policy."

John Major turned the slogan "A dog is for life; not just for Christmas" into numbing Major-ese at Question Time. Pressed by the animal-loving Labour MP Tony Banks to discourage the giving of puppies, he said: "I hope that everyone who contemplates a present for Christmas of any form of pet bears in mind that it is not just a present for the short-term but for the long-term."