The Conservatives in Brighton: Heseltine wins ovation for stand on Maastricht

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Indy Politics
MICHAEL HESELTINE took on the anti-Maastricht hecklers yesterday and won a standing ovation at the conference after telling the packed hall that the Government would not allow Britain to be marginalised on the periphery of Europe.

The President of the Board of Trade was repeatedly interrupted by hecklers, who hissed and shouted as he defended the Government's decision to proceed with the ratification of the treaty, and emphasised his concern that the City should not lose influence in Europe after the withdrawal of sterling from the exchange rate mechanism.

'How on earth could the Conservative Party - of all parties - risk the future of the City of London? Our invisible earnings are a priceless asset. If you want to hand that over to the Germans and the French, all you have to do is to see us marginalised on the periphery of Europe.

'I tell you as clearly as I can tell you, no Conservative government would do it. No Conservative politician in office could advocate it and that is why John Major went to Maastricht. He went to fight for our essential interests.'

The hecklers shouted: 'He lost.' Having remained muted during the defence of the policy by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, they shouted 'sell-out' at Mr Heseltine and hissed at the mention of Maastricht.

In some of the stormiest scenes ever faced by Mr Heseltine at his own party's conference, he went on: 'I know of no British leader who negotiated a treaty more directly tailored to British self-interest than he did there. The whole history of the European Community has been to advance by centralisation in Brussels.'

One heckler shouted: 'He shouldn't' Mr Heseltine retorted: 'So what the heck are you complaining about when John Major has reversed the process?'

As the majority of the audience rose to its feet, cheering Mr Heseltine, he said: 'I hope the national press will report the overwhelming acclaim for national self-interest and stop parading divisions in this party.'

Pointing at his audience, he added: 'Don't put the cameras on me. Photograph them.'

Returning to his speech, Mr Heseltine told the heckler: 'One against so many. You have just lost . . . There is the articulate voice of the Tory party. I cannot understand a word it says. If I could, it would not be worth listening to.'

He said the press had said that the Tory party had gone to the Brighton conference to 'lick our wounds and bandage our limbs. I say they don't know the Tory party. We've come here this week as the party of government. We've come because we won, not because we lost.'

Mr Heseltine, once the 'darling' of Conservative Party conferences, is blamed by the Thatcherites, who are against the Maastricht treaty, for bringing down Baroness Thatcher. He is also seen as a leading voice in the Cabinet against allowing the pound to float freely indefinitely outside the ERM, which the Thatcherites are demanding.

But, behind Mr Heseltine's speech lay widespread Tory grassroots concern about the recession. Many of the 61 resolutions for the trade and industry debate called for action to stem the tide of bankruptcies among small businesses and to revive manufacturing industry. Peter Fleet of Southampton called for further cuts in interest rates and a commitment not to put up taxation.

Mr Heseltine assured the conference that, like the French and the Germans, he would intervene if necessary to help companies, but did not say how. He said that one-stop shops would be launched in 15 towns this autumn where firms could get advice.

He announced that he was inviting British companies to second 100 men and women to the Department of Trade and Industry to help in a new export drive.

(Photographs omitted)