The Conservatives in Brighton: Hurd sees 'madness' closing door to power

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Indy Politics
DOUGLAS HURD faced down a hostile Tory conference yesterday, warning that if the party gave in to 'madness' and split over Europe it could shut itself out of power for 10 years.

The debate on the Maastricht treaty was the most acrimonious Conservative conference debate in memory, with supporters of closer European union being hissed and barracked from the floor. One anguished speaker described the debate as 'political suicide'.

The most fervent applause was for Lord Tebbit, who urged the Prime Minister to renegotiate the Maastricht treaty. 'Kohl and Mitterrand no longer speak for Europe,' the former party chairman said. 'John Major should raise the flag of patriots of all the states of Europe.

'Let's launch the drive for Maastricht Two - a treaty with no mention of more power for Brussels, no mention of economic, monetary and political union. It is a task in which I stand ready to join John Major whenever he is ready to begin.'

Lord Tebbit strode through the hall acknowledging a rapturous standing ovation. But representatives carried, by a comfortable margin, a motion congratulating the Government on its leadership during the UK's presidency of the European Community.

Mr Hurd said he would not try to 'soft soap' his way to an ovation - though he got one. When a minister was in charge of a controversial policy, conference liked it from him 'hard and straight'.

'Our party broke itself over the Corn Laws - and effectively shut itself out of power for 10 years. Our party broke itself over tariff reform and shut itself from power for 10 years.

'Our Conservative Party could break itself over Europe - with consequences which would deeply damage Britain and give comfort only to our opponents.

'Let us decide to give that madness a miss.'

There was more common ground on Europe in the party than might be supposed, the Foreign Secretary said. They rejected a centralised Europe, wanted a wider, free trading community, including the EFTA countries and the new democracies of central Europe, and less interference from Brussels.

'The notion that the Treaty of Maastricht is a blueprint for a centralised Europe runs against the facts . . . The Dutch text with its 'federal goal' was swept off the table. The only pity seems to have been that it is the text that got into Norman Tebbit's hands.'

Emphasising that the treaty enshrined the principle of 'minimum interference' in national affairs, or subsidiarity, Mr Hurd said: 'We are winning the arguments - now is not the time to kick over the table.' If the Government dropped ratification of Maastricht after putting it in the election manifesto and having it approved by the Commons, how could a British prime minister carry weight or conviction thereafter?

'We don't want Britain to be on the sidelines when the security and prosperity of Europe are being decided. We know in our bones, because of our history, it's not safe, it's not wise, it's not right.'

Mr Hurd said 'minimum interference' would be top of the agenda at the European Council in Birmingham next week. Acknowledging calls for more information on the treaty, he said provided the summit made progress, the Government would produce a booklet explaining the treaty. Under Cabinet rules, it could not be sent to every home while legislation was pending, but would be made easily available to the public.

He also advocated greater openness in the workings of the Council of Ministers, with the positions of national delegations on important matters stated on the record and open to public examination.

Each time, during Mr Hurd's speech, the picture of Sir Edward Heath flashed up on the giant monitor beside the platform, it was greeted with loud hissing. 'Traitor Heath' shouted one woman. The former prime minister appeared unmoved. The name of Tristan Garel-Jones, the pro- European Minister of State at the Foreign Office, was also hissed.

Lord Tebbit, greeted with a standing ovation from half the hall when he went to the rostrum, complained that his own amendment to the congratulatory motion had not been selected. It called for the abandonment of economic and monetary union and the entrenchment of the rights of self-government by member states. Amendments calling for a referendum on the treaty and its total rejection were similarly ignored by the platform.

He said that after his retirement he never intended to address the conference again.' But speak I must. The Government is in desperate trouble.

'I hope the Prime Minister will stand by our Chancellor. After all, it wasn't Norman Lamont's decision to enter the ERM. He did his best to make the unworkable work. The cost in lost jobs, in bankrupt firms, in repossessed homes, in the terrible wounds inflicted on industry, has been savage. But we have established ourselves as good Europeans.

'Now, outside the Deutschmark straitjacket, we can pursue policies that are, in the Chancellor's words, 'in the national interest'. And not before time. That is what this conference wants.'

Lord Tebbit said that since the signing of the Maastricht treaty last December, 'a great tide of opinion' had begun to flow against the federalists, not just in Britain, but in Denmark, France and even Germany. Turning a phrase used by Mr Garel-Jones against the Maastricht critics, he went on: 'Surely it would be 'reckless, perverse and bizarre' to over- ride the will of Europe's people to manage their own affairs?' He said a copy of the treaty should be sent to every home in Britain, and especially one to Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, who admitted yesterday that he had not read it.

Following on, Pamela Parker of East Surrey told Lord Tebbit to support the Prime Minister on ITV and on the BBC. 'I am furious. We won the general election under the leadership of John Major . . . Yet here we are . . . listening to political suicide.'

To cheers, Bernard Juby of Birmingham Yardley railed against the 'arrogance' of the Germans in refusing to allow the Danish referendum to stop the Maastricht train. He warned the Prime Minister not to brush aside party members' fears as 'simply froth and bubble. That denigrates our intelligence'.

David Simcock of South Norfolk said the Government's economic and European policy was in tatters. 'Our Government is so obsessed with Europe that they have not noticed the misery at home; hundreds of thousands of workers being laid off, thousands of businesses going bankrupt.'

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