Inside Parliament: Lone stand in Corfu saddens Heath: Ashdown says summit was Punch and Judy farce - Beckett's switch on Europe mocked

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Sir Edward Heath looked the saddest man in the Commons yesterday as John Major reported on his use of the veto at the Corfu summit to stop Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian prime minister, becoming president of the European Commission.

The former Conservative prime minister had once seen in Mr Major an end to the isolationist tactics of Margaret Thatcher, but here he was basking in the praise of the Euro- sceptics for standing alone against the other 11 European Union states.

Maastricht rebel Sir Peter Tapsell lauded the Prime Minister's 'cool, determined and far-sighted' stand. 'The British people instinctively understand that the so-called European Union is increasingly in danger of being the latest vehicle for the age-old German desire to dominate Europe,' said Sir Peter, MP for Lindsey East.

It was the kind of rhetoric Sir Edward abhors. The veteran integrationist said the fact that Mr Major considered himself forced to use the veto was 'a matter for regret, not for rejoicing'.

While agreeing that Mr Major's preferred candidate, the former Tory minister Sir Leon Brittan, would have been an excellent president, Sir Edward said: 'The reason why he got no support from any other member was because of their widespread belief that the British government would use all its powers to bring pressure to bear upon him to reorder the community and not to develop the European Union.' Barracked by Tory MPs, he warned: 'The major task of the Government now is to concentrate on how to resolve this crisis, for crisis it certainly is.'

Mr Major, in his statement, complained of the lack of consultation over Mr Dehaene's candidature. 'The procedures used for this decision, before and during the Council were not satisfactory.' Had 'more comprehensive consultation' taken place, open division could have been avoided. In his careful way, Mr Major was talking of what his former Cabinet minister Kenneth Baker called 'a Franco-German stitch-up'.

Reiterating his opposition to Mr Dehaene, he said Corfu had highlighted an issue of increasing concern to many EU members - the way in which decisions were made. 'For the next five years the Commission needs a president who is in tune with the times and the mood across Europe. A president whose instincts are with enterprise and competitiveness. Above all, Europe needs a president of the Commission selected with the full approval of all member states.'

To cheers from his backbenchers, the Prime Minister said: 'Being a good European does not mean signing up to everything which our partners propose. At Corfu we fought for what we believe is in the best interests of this country and of Europe.'

Paddy Ashdown, said Mr Major's attempt to 'portray the Punch and Judy farce at Corfu as Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt' was deeply unconvincing. 'Everybody in Europe and most people in Britain realise that what he has done is sacrifice the long-term influence and interests of Britain in order to obtain a few short- term headlines in the Murdoch press and deliver a large dollop of appeasement to his right-wingers.'

Stung, Mr Major said all the Liberal Democrat leader showed was how little he understood about negotiations in Europe and what was at stake. But of course Mr Ashdown did not 'consider the sovereignty of this Parliament to be important'.

Margaret Beckett, the acting Labour leader, was undone with words from her past as a strident opponent of membership of the then EEC. She said the Prime Minister had gone to promote a British candidate, won no support and ended up vetoing a Conservative. 'Events this weekend show not that the Prime Minister is strong, but that he is weak and a prisoner of his Euro-sceptics, and that yet again it is the people of this country who will pay the price for his failure.'

But to the delight of his troops, Mr Major quoted Mrs Beckett describing the EEC as the 'prime obstacle' to the policies Britain needed. 'She has slipped effortlessly from slavish and unthinking opposition to the European Community to slavish and unthinking support for everything that emerges from it.'

Conservative MPs who pushed Mr Major close to edge over the Maastricht treaty, establishing the EU, now queued up to congratulate him. Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Southend East, said he had stood firm 'against the blitzkrieg tactics of the French and Germans'. Bill Cash, MP for Stafford, said it was important to ensure that the president was not a federalist and 'absolutely essential that we do not have the Germans and the French running the European Community'.

Responding to Mr Cash's call for a reduction in the powers of the Commission, Mr Major doubted that whoever became president would exercise the influence of Jacques Delors. 'The changing nature and enlargement of the community make it extremely unlikely that anyone will exercise that authority again.'

Former European Commissioner Lord Richard, leader of the Labour peers, said Mr Major had succeeded in antagonising all the countries Britain was going to need in future 'for the sake of a few plaudits from the irreconcilables in his own party'. Speaking after the statement was repeated in the Upper House, Lord Richard commended Mr Dehaene's high reputation as a compromiser and a fixer. 'I can think of nothing more damaging to any candidate than that he should now be supported by the British government.'

(Photograph omitted)