Tory MPs taunt Brown over beef war with France

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Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, came under fierce attack from Tories who claimed yesterday that he no longer "enjoyed the confidence" of the Prime Minister over his handling of the beef crisis.

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, came under fierce attack from Tories who claimed yesterday that he no longer "enjoyed the confidence" of the Prime Minister over his handling of the beef crisis.

The minister was announcing tough guidelines for the labelling of pig meat and an additional £10m for organic farming as well as £5m to strengthen the marketing skills of the farming industry. He said he had written to all MPs, urging them to encourage their own councils to recognise the high quality of British pork. But Tom King, the Conservative MP for Bridgwater, told him: "If this is the total package, you are on the brink of a major collapse of the pig industry."

The beef war took the limelight. The Minister of Agriculture was adamant that a trade war with France over its continued ban on British beef would be "absolutely wrong" and risk jobs. Over a series of angry Tory interventions, he said: "All the suggestions, including that of opening up a trade war by behaving illegally ourselves, seem to me to be absolutely wrong.

"It will cause a lot of harm and a lot of misery to many people in this country, as their jobs, and there are hundreds of thousands of jobs involved in this, are put at risk."

But Tim Yeo, the Tory agriculture spokesman, taunted Mr Brown: "You are a decent man. You have travelled up and down the country listening to farmers in the last years - you have charmed very many of them.

"You no longer enjoy the support of the Prime Minister. For all your decency and charm, you don't seem to be strong enough to do the job and stand up for the British consumers and farmers who look to you for a lead."

The European Union's scientific steering committee is considering French evidence that lies behind their ban, despite an EU ruling that it should be lifted.

Mr Brown said he expected the steering committee to dismiss the evidence and warned again of legal action if the French continued the ban.

He defended cancellation of a "routine bilateral" meeting between him and the French agriculture minister on Saturday, after France's Prime Minister asked his colleague to go on an overseas visit.

Mr Brown said: "Just jeering at the French government from the Conservative benches isn't going to help in this. These are routine bilaterals, they are often rearranged at the last minute because of the pressures on ministers and I take no offence at that."

David Curry, a former Tory agriculture minister and MP for Skipton and Ripon, said: "I have no sympathy at all for the call for a ban on French products." Mr Curry, who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet last year over William Hague's stance on Europe, added: "I cannot imagine a single action more calculated to extinguish the last flicker of life in hill farming in North Yorkshire than to encourage a trade war which puts £136m of live lamb exports to France at risk."

* Mr Brown has also written to prison governors, health authorities and local councils to promote British pork. He said he wanted "to draw their attention to the high quality, hygiene and welfare standards of British pork".

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