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UK Politics

The Conservatives in Brighton: Thatcher and friends find a place for the sound European: A newspaper founded by the Labour-supporting Robert Maxwell has new owners and a changed editorial line. Stephen Castle reports

THE COLUMNS of the European may seem an unlikely place for the former prime minister, Baroness Thatcher, to outline her views on Europe. Founded by the Labour-supporting Robert Maxwell, the weekly paper was born with the objective of promoting European unity; if any one title seemed an antithesis of Thatcherism, this was it.

But while the paper survived the death of the publishing tycoon its editorial line on Europe did not. In January the title was rescued by Frederick and David Barclay, wealthy businessmen and supporters of Margaret Thatcher, and the paper began to change. Apart from Lady Thatcher, other contributors included Lord Ridley, the former Thatcherite Cabinet minister and arch-critic of European union, and (more often) Lord McAlpine, former Conservative Party treasurer and a close friend of the Thatchers.

On 9 April, the paper urged its British readers to vote Tory but argued that John Major should resign if the Conservatives won and, last weekend, called on both Mr Major and his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, to quit. The European also urged the French to vote against the Maastricht treaty in their referendum and consistently criticised the exchange rate mechanism.

One former member of staff remarked yesterday on the irony of 'something that was set up as a Euro- federalist newspaper now campaigning frantically against European union'. All in all, Lady Thatcher might conclude that the European has become one of us.

According to one account, ministers had come to the same conclusion before the general election, with concerns growing that the paper might become a Thatcherite mouthpiece. That is a gross over-simplification because the paper has balanced some of its more Thatcherite articles on Europe with contributions, from, for example, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac and Jacques Delors.

The Barclays are not hands-on proprietors in the Maxwell mould and, according to one source, have never been in the building.

Yesterday, the paper's editor, Charles Garside, described the European as 'incredibly independent', adding: 'There is no other agenda. We have been critical of the way the Maastricht treaty has not been presented for public scrutiny. People are afraid of what they do not understand. Just because you show concerns doesn't make you anti-European.'

However, there is no doubt that the Barclays belong to a Thatcherite network whose views get a good airing in the paper they own.

The brothers sold the Thatchers the 10-year lease on their five-storey London home in Chester Square after the eviction from Downing Street. Lord McAlpine is also a friend of theirs. And the Barclays own a 17 per cent stake in Chime Communications, an umbrella company set up by Lady Thatcher's friend and favourite advertising man, Sir Tim Bell.

According to one former journalist on the European, the change in relations with the former Prime Minister was apparent immediately the Barclays took over. He said: 'Margaret Thatcher would never have anything to do with the paper and repeated attempts to make contact got nowhere. When the new team took over doors started opening.'

Gerald Howarth, until April MP for Cannock and Burntwood and one of Lady Thatcher's closest Parliamentary aides, describes the Barclays as 'staunch supporters' of the former Prime Minister and is encouraged by the European's change of tone. 'It is less sycophantic on European matters and is becoming a forum for a genuine debate about Europe.' Ministers, shell-shocked by their battering in the Tory-supporting tabloids, are less keen to be quoted about yet another adversary in the press.