Major's insult crowns report on summit

Guide dog' jibe draws gasps in House Essen talks `wide-ranging and welcome' Referendum raises temperatures again Camelot Question Time' makes its debut
Click to follow
Indy Politics
John Major spiced his report to the Commons yesterday, on what he agreed was a "dull and businesslike" summit at Essen, with a firming up of his readiness to hold a referendum on closer European integration, and an insult to his fellow heads of g overnment.

Explaining away a claim by the Spanish leader, Felipe Gonzalez, that he was "overjoyed" by a deal on fishing, Mr Major said that there had been no great breakthrough but it was "not entirely unknown'' for prime ministers abroad to make statements for domestic reasons.

"This does not, of course, apply to British prime ministers," he said to opposition jeers. "They don't find themselves subject to the same rigorous questioning in their own parliaments as we do.

"I have to say that some of my fellow heads of government could scarcely find their way to their parliaments with a guide dog."

The jibe drew gasps from MPs and an immediate rebuke from Labour's Denis MacShane, resident in France until he became MP for Rotherham last May. "That last insult to every prime minister in Europe really takes the biscuit," he said.

Mr MacShane had also noted the absence from the chamber of any Eurosceptic ministers. "As the Prime Minister cannot speak for his party, if, at least, he claims to speak for his Cabinet, why is there not a single Europhobe Cabinet minister on the front bench with him?" The PM was flanked by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

But what passes for Mr Major's wit had deserted him. "Dear oh dear," he said. "I'm not sure why Mr MacShane bothered to ask that question and it certainly doesn't merit a reply."

In his statement, Mr Major said that, over dinner at Essen, the leaders had an informal discussion about the future development of the EU. "This was the first such wide-ranging discussion I can recall, and it was very welcome.

"Within a few years we will have around 20 members and, some time later, perhaps as many as 27. The Union is changing beyond recognition. I said it was time to rethink the Union's future constructively, and I set out the need for realism in the period ahead. This is essential if the EU is to regain popular support."

Popular support, according to the sceptics, can really only be tested by a referendum. Bill Cash, MP for Stafford, urged the Prime Minister to hold a referendum before the 1996 EU intergovernmental conference. Without one, the Maastricht treaty enabled aLabour government to move straight to a single currency, he said.

Mr Major observed that "complete support" from Mr Cash, an erstwhile rebel, would be "perhaps the most agreeable way" to ensure that there was no Labour government. A single currency was not likely to be on the agenda at the IGC, he said.

"It is right for us to determine what the circumstances are when the question arises. That must be in our national economic interest," he said.

Winston Churchill, Conservative MP for Davyhulme, congratulated Mr Major on fighting for Britain in Europe and on the way he "survived repeated political assasination attempts", in the media. But he,too, wanted a referendum if there was a clear prospect of a further transfer of sovereignty to the EU.

The Prime Minister was "touched" by this concern for his welfare. "I look forward to that thought spreading." He said that he had "not traditionally favoured referendums in a parliamentary democracy" but on exceptional matters - like the outcome of the IGC or a single currency - one could not be excluded.

But Sir Terence Higgins, Tory MP for Worthing and a former Treasury minister, said a referendum was "an alien concept, incompatible with representative parliamentary democracy ... It would be particularly absurd to have a referendum on a single currency when most people do not know the difference between a single currency and a common currency and - as Mr Major just pointed out - because of enlargement, it is not likely to be an issue for many years."

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, said the big questions confronting Europe remained. Finding a good deal of accord with the Prime Minister, he went on: "The precondition for further European co-operation for those of us who genuinely believe in Europe and Britain's place at the heart of it is decided through a debate involving the people of Europe not merely their political `elite."

The British and other governments should be candid about their views and seek to justify further progress rather than demand it.

"In short, the next stages of the development of Europe will come through persuasion or not at all," Mr Blair added.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, welcomed the Prime Minister's changing mind on a referendum and agreed that policy on Europe ought to depend on a wide public debate.

"It ought not depend on the untidy outcome of an unseemly spat led by rebels within his own divided party," he said.

Lottery fever seized MPs to such an extent that the opening business of the day was dubbed "Camelot Question Time" by Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington.

Iain Sproat, junior National Heritage minister, suggested that if anyone objected to the efforts of the press to identify winners - presumably a reference to tabloid offers of cash to shop winning friends and neighbours - they should go to the Press Complaints Commission.

Charles Hendry, Conservative MP for High Peak, said that when big sums were rolled over from one week to the next - as last Saturday - half of the extra money should go to good causes and only one-quarter or one-third added to the jackpot.

In a more self-interested contribution, his colleague, Toby Jessel, MP for Twickenham, asked if lottery tickets could be put on sale in the Palace of Westminster.

Comments