The Prime Minister assured the Commons at Question Time yesterday that he would be backing Sir Leon Brittan, the former Conservative minister turned EC trade commissioner. But the sceptics' concern is over who Mr Major might accept if, as is probable, Sir Leon is not chosen. Mr Lamont urged Mr Major 'firmly to reject' the candidature of the Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene. 'Even if Britain did not have a candidate with an excellent negotiating track record, Mr Dehaene is a federalist of a very old-fashioned kind. No Belgian candidate is ever going to resist the ever-increasing demands of the Brussels bureaucracy.'
Mr Major said that at the moment the only declared candidates were Mr Brittan and Ruud Lubbers, prime minister of the Netherlands, both of whom were 'highly respected' in the European Union. 'I've made no secret of my belief that I believe Leon Brittan is the right candidate and he will have our very strong support at Corfu. I'm not at this stage going to declare our position on any other candidates or possible candidates.'
The Commission presidency will probably not be settled at Corfu. Mr Dehaene is emerging as a strong contender with the backing of France and Germany, and Downing Street has indicated Mr Major would not veto the Belgian's appointment.
As always, Mr Lamont's Question Time intervention was greeted by cheers from Opposition MPs. Since he was sacked by Mr Major a year ago, the former Chancellor has repeatedly rocked the Tory boat, irritating even some Euro-sceptics who have been lying low over the election. For a man who needs to endear himself to a new constituency if he is to remain an MP - the Boundary Commission has done for his Kingston upon Thames seat - it is curious behaviour.
Mr Lamont's handiwork when at No 11 Downing Street again formed the substance of the clash between Margaret Beckett, Labour's interim leader, and the Prime Minister. The pattern is familiar - Mrs Beckett tries to get Mr Major to admit that taxes will have gone up pounds 800 by next year for the average British family and he then asks how Labour will fund its public spending promises if not by tax rises.
'That is twice in one week that the Prime Minister has refused to answer the question,' Mrs Beckett said. 'Let's try again. Taxes will go up next year, won't they? Just say yes.' Mr Major replied: 'Mrs Beckett knows the content of the Budget and knows also that she is wriggling and hiding behind promises that she cannot substantiate.'
Above mounting uproar, Mrs Beckett came back: 'Does the Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor (Kenneth Clarke) that these tax increases and the threat of interest rate increases are a direct result of this Government's economic failure and track record of boom and bust? Who does he think the Chancellor was condemning: Lord Lawson as Mr Boom or the Prime Minister himself as Mr Bust?'
Mr Major retorted: 'Very well rehearsed, but it won't win the right honourable lady very many votes. Can she ever remember when interest rates under a Labour government were as low as they have been under this Government for the last 15 months . . . when inflation was as low as it is . . . when our growth rate was twice as high as our European competitors? The answer is she can't, and under any Labour government it never would be.'
The Prime Minister was in bullish form, whatever his misgivings about Question Time. In fact in these exchanges he not only ducked Mrs Beckett's questions but asked - and answered - his own. He also joined his backbenchers in goading Labour over its stand on the rail strike.
However, when Peter Butler, Tory MP for Milton Keynes NE, invited the Prime Minister to comment on the stupidity of Labour's position on tax, Speaker Betty Boothroyd intervened to point out the current ground rules. 'It is the executive that is responsible for answering questions, not the Opposition. That is the whole process on which our democracy is based.'
During Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew and his Labour shadow, Kevin McNamara, called on Sinn Fein to heed the voice of the people in the European elections, renounce violence and join the peace negotiations.
'What did they get in the south - 3 per cent. What did they get in the north - under 10 per cent,' Sir Patrick said. 'For these people to continue to use violence, claiming to act in some way in the name of the people of Ireland, is not only fanciful, it is fraudulent.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content