Rebuke for Major over pledge on Europe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LORD HOWE, the former Foreign Secretary, said John Major had failed to deliver on his pledge on Britain's role in Europe, as the European issue threatened to divide the Tory Party on the eve of its annual conference in Bournemouth.

Urging the Prime Minister to reaffirm his leadership on Europe, Lord Howe, in an interview for the Tory Reform Group, said Mr Major had not fulfilled the intentions and expectations about his pledge to keep 'Britain at the heart of Europe'.

'The central thrust of our policy has to be devoted to participation in the European Union,' Lord Howe said.

In side-swipe at Mr Major's use of the veto over the election of the European Commission president, Lord Howe added: 'I think we have to recognise that a point may come when the threat of a veto will not serve to prevent the emergence of a more committed group of member states going ahead on their own.'

Europe will be among the first issues debated by the conference. The party leadership, convinced that the heat has been taken out of the issue by the passage of the Bill to implement the Maastricht treaty, has included Europe in the general foreign affairs debate tomorrow.

Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, is expected to spearhead a series of calls on the conference fringe for the Government to oppose a single currency. He is likely to question in retrospect the wisdom of joining the European exchange rate mechanism.

Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, broke ranks yesterday by calling on BBC radio for the Government to make its position clear on the single currency. 'We don't know what the Government's policy is on a single currency. We should know. It is the uncertainty that is damaging to the Government,' he said.

John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales, who will be guest of honour at a Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward dinner on Wednesday, was cooler on the prospect of European union but carefully adhered to the Government's line of neutrality on a single currency in ITV's Walden programme.

A string of senior Cabinet ministers sought to paper over the cracks both on Europe and the right-wing demands for immediate cuts in the standard rate of taxation. Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, and Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for National Heritage, denied splits in the party over its response to Tony Blair.

Mr Heseltine said Mr Blair had got 'lots of glitzy words but it's all rhetoric . . . he is hungry for power.'

A Conservative Party adviser, Danny Finkelstein, also warned against reacting to Mr Blair by swinging to the right. He said the Tories 'must not allow Tony Blair . . . to push the Conservative Party out of the mainstream. The party must set its own agenda'.

Mr Finkelstein, a former SDP member who was brought into Central Office at the last election, said: 'The first step is to recognise two things about Tony Blair's speech: that it was politically brilliant; and that it does represent a real change in the Labour Party . . . The critical thing for the Conservative Party is they have to speak to the electorate, not internally to the party. Part of the strength of Blair's speech is he was able to speak over the heads of the Labour Party.'