Parliament and Politics: Major 'safe from leadership challenge over Maastricht': As Conservatives gather in Brighton, Lord Tebbit talks to Anthony Bevins

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A CHALLENGE to John Major's leadership from Thatcherite opponents of the Maastricht treaty has been ruled out by Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, who is campaigning against closer European union.

Interviewed by the Independent on the eve of this week's Brighton party conference, Lord Tebbit said he did not see the possibility of any leadership challenge for the foreseeable future.

'After all,' he said, 'from whence would the challenge come? If Mr Major is unsuccessful, the most likely challenger would be the professional challenger, Mr Heseltine, who has still not achieved his ambition despite having toppled Lady Thatcher.

'But I think he would not be acceptable to the Euro-sceptics, so I don't think they would be wanting to encourage a challenge from him. I don't see anybody else waiting to challenge.'

With the Prime Minister threatening to take the Maastricht legislation back to the Commons by the turn of the year, the political pickle faced by his backbench opponents is extreme - if only because they cannot count on Labour support either for a referendum, or against the treaty itself.

'The Labour Party likes Maastricht,' Lord Tebbit said. 'They like the idea of a centralising bureaucracy. They just don't think it goes far enough.'

Asked whether he believed that Labour saw Brussels as a route to backdoor socialism - Baroness Thatcher's suspicion - Lord Tebbit said: 'I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Labour Party wants socialism any more. I wouldn't descend to that sort of abuse. Corporatism is what they're now interested in, not socialism. And corporatism is really what is of interest in Germany and France, too.'

The charge of corporatism - 'government in league with the powerful interest groups within the state, rather than the democratic institutions' - has been levelled before against Brussels by right-wing ministers such as Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security.

Lord Tebbit said: 'Hitler's Germany was corporatist, but corporatism does not have to be violent or anti-semitic . . . France today, and Germany today, are both corporatist countries.

'One sees for how little, for example, the French National Assembly counts in the calculations of Mr Mitterand. It doesn't meet very often, it doesn't have very much to do, and essentially he rules by decree - or by referendum, (when they) think they'll get the answer they want.'

Given that perceived tendency within the EC, Lord Tebbit's fears were strong. He saw Brussels government controlling economic and monetary policy, defence and foreign affairs. 'And then, under the principle of subsidiarity, subsidiary matters would be left to subsidiary government here at Westminster.

'The vision of Brussels is of a Europe in which the nation states have withered away, and we would have a Europe of the government in Brussels, and perhaps a couple of hundred lander, or provinces . . .

'One already meets in the corridors of Brussels people such as the prime minister of Catalonia. Presumably, one would expect to meet, if Brussels had its way, at some time in the future, the prime minister of Wales, and the prime minister of Scotland, and perhaps the prime minister of Northern England.

'But there wouldn't seem to be a great deal for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to do. So we would find ourselves with very little power over our own affairs.'

If that point was ever reached, then Lord Tebbit feared an outbreak of 'the most virulent and extreme nationalism' along the lines of the resurgence of neoNazism in Germany.

However, he still nurtured hopes that the Prime Minister could turn what he called the 'defensive victory' of Maastricht into an 'offensive victory' against Brussels - 'To gain against the federalist argument, and to get back to something much nearer to de Gaulle's vision of a Europe of nations.'

In spite of all the criticism he has made against Mr Major's current policy on Maastricht, Lord Tebbit still counted himself as one of the Prime Minister's friends. 'I still have high hopes for him and for the Government. It's certainly going through an extremely difficult patch, and that's because the objectives of the European policy were probably not capable of being realised.'

Lord Tebbit put that down to the fundamental fault line of Europe - the English Channel - 'that has left the Continent and these islands with very different histories and therefore very different fears, and very different ideas of the way in which Europe should be constructed. It's finding out how to live with that which is the difficulty, not just for Mr Major, but for the Conservative Party and, indeed, for the Labour Party, too.'

(Photograph omitted)

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