The European Elections: Major accuses left of threat to jobs: Employment: PM rejects Labour claim that his vision would leave UK in 'bicycle lane', writes Colin Brown

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The Independent Online
John Major last night warned that socialist employment policies would push Europe to its worst recession since the Thirties. Attacking the Social Chapter, the Prime Minister said the 35-hour week and statutory minimum wage would destroy jobs: 'Europe faces a crisis we haven't seen since the 1930s,' he told a Tory European Election rally in Nottingham.

Unemployment in Europe was almost double the rate in America - 20 million unemployed and rising, he said. Mr Major warned: 'If Europe doesn't adopt the right policies, then the number will grow.'

By raising the spectre of unemployment, the Prime Minister was returning to one of the three key themes that the Tories set out at the start of the campaign before the strategy was blown off course by the row over beggars.

Raising the stakes, Mr Major clearly attempted to play one of the trump cards in an otherwise weak Conservative hand in the campaign against Labour and the Liberal Democrats. He rejected Labour criticism that his vision of Britain in a multi-speed Europe would leave this country in the 'bicycle lane'.

He said: 'Because we're not in the Social Chapter, Britain is in the first division in Europe for inward investment and new jobs. That's the answer to those silly folk who talk of Britain being in the second division.'

Michael Heseltine yesterday gave his support to Mr Major's view of a multi-speed European union. The backing of the President of the Board of Trade, a committed European, will help Mr Major to answer recriminations likely to be raised after the election by pro-Maastricht Tory MPs against Mr Major for seeking to appease the Europhobes.

Mr Heseltine said his view was 'exactly the same as the Prime Minister's - we should be at the heart of Europe but it can be multi-speed and multi-tier'.

The attack on the Social Chapter last night was also calculated to demonstrate how Mr Major's stated commitment to being at the heart of Europe can be reconciled with a multi-speed EU.

He said: 'It is not anti-Europe to argue for what you think is right for Europe. It is pro-Europe, and pro-Britain, too. I do not propose to change my ways. Because I want Europe to succeed, I will be critical where I must. Difficult if I have to be. I would rather speak up and put the case for what I know to be right for Britain, than clink glasses in agreement with something that was wrong. That wasn't what you elected me to do - and it's not what I'm going to do.'

It was a 'trivial response' by opponents to say a flexible Europe meant we must have a first and a second division. Their real objective, Mr Major said, was a monolithic Europe: 'That we must sign up to everything whether it is in our interest or not.'

Earlier, in a local radio phone-in programme, Mr Major reasserted his determination not to resign if the Tories lose badly on 9 June. 'I will continue to carry on the work that I am doing,' he said.

Interest rates, inflation and unemployment had been reduced, Mr Major said, and he reminded his audience it was only half-way through the parliament.

'The foundations of the house that I would like to build in this parliament have been laid. I want to continue to finish the house with the other legislation and other changes I hope to make during the rest of this parliament and that is what I will do.'

Mr Major was challenged over the apparently negative tone of the Conservative European campaign and conceded on BBC Radio Nottingham that it was important to deal 'with the points that are good about Europe'.

He said the EU was vital for British jobs and for the security of Western Europe. But he insisted the sceptical tone of the campaign was likely to find more of an echo with the voters than the outright federalism of Labour or the Liberal Democrats. 'We are not Euro- enthusiasts,' the Prime Minister said of the British people. 'There is a sourness about Europe in a number of European countries.'

The ovation he was given by the invited audience of about 300 supporters suggests he is right about the bedrock Conservative voters on whom he is depending.