The Conservatives in Brighton: Baker takes a stand in the rebels' front ranks

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KENNETH BAKER placed himself at the forefront of Conservative Commons rebels over Maastricht yesterday by saying that he would vote against the Bill. At the same time, Lord Tebbit warned that the issue could split the party as the Corn Laws had in the 19th Century.

Lord Tebbit said that Maastricht was 'a time bomb, ticking away'. If forced on the peoples of Europe it would lead to the existing Community blowing apart in recrimination and neo-Nazi nationalism when things went wrong. It would 'destroy utterly' the Europe the founding fathers had wanted of a community of free- trade nation states working together, as each country would make a scapegoat of foreigners. 'We have seen it already,' he told a Selsdon Group fringe meeting, 'with Le Pen and the National Front on the march in France, the Lombardy League in Italy wanting to dump the poor south, and the neo-Nazis in Rostock.'

But he coupled his warning of what Maastricht would produce with one that if the economy worsened further before the Bill came back to the Commons, there was a 'a real danger' that the party would split. 'There . . . will be siren voices saying 'Look, we have more in common with some people in the Labour Party than we do with some of our own friends. Is this an issue which is so important that we should break ranks? Is there a deal that can be done?' That is Corn Laws territory. It could happen.'

He doubted that it would, he added, as he doubted at the present time that the Bill could be defeated. 'It partly depends on what happens in the Labour Party. We need their help.'

Mr Baker said he would vote against the Bill when it returned. His decision was a difficult one, he said, 'in view of the loyalty I have always shown towards our party'. But, quoting Martin Luther, he added: 'I can do no other.'

The vision of a centralised Europe and single currency had 'fizzled out' and become 'yesterday's menu'. Now that Britain was 'well out' of the ERM, he added, the Government should take advantage of its new freedom to cut interest rates now by another 1 per cent, with a target of 6 per cent 'within a matter of months'.

Predicting that unemployment would rise to more than 3 million, he said that strict monetary targets and public-spending cuts could keep inflation below 3 per cent by the spring.

Mr Baker added that the Gatt talks needed settling and the 'primary goal' of a single European market 'free of subsidies and protective devices' should be urgently completed.

(Photograph omitted)