The Government in Crisis: Leaders trade accusations of policy U-turns

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR yesterday continued to insist that conditions for the return of the European union legislation to the Commons have been met, brushing aside a charge by John Smith that he was about to do a 'U-turn' on his undertakings to the Commons.

With MPs' attention at Prime Minister's questions focused on the terms of the motion for next week's crucial debate on the Maastricht treaty Bill, Mr Major accused the Labour leader of 'wriggling' and reversing his policy on Europe.

Labour decided on Wednesday it would vote against the move to bring the Bill back to the Commons and cited the Prime Minister's declaration that it would not make sense to proceed until Danish intentions were clear and a definition of subsidiarity agreed and put in place. Mr Smith said publication yesterday of a Foreign Office assessment of the Danish proposals confirmed that the Prime Minister could not discharge his undertakings to the House before the Edinburgh EC summit in December.

But Mr Major replied: 'I do not believe that that is the case. The British presidency have the responsibility of seeking to negotiate Denmark into a position where it can ratify the treaty. We hope to be able to reach a framework agreement on that by December. What is clear is that the Danes have now set out how they propose to proceed and it is also clear from the Birmingham Declaration that we will have positive decisions on subsidiarity.'

He made no direct comment on the Foreign Office note which warned that the Danish proposals on treaty ratification were unlikely to be accepted by other EC states.

Mr Smith asked: 'Does the Prime Minister not recall saying in precise and specific terms in this House on 24 September that there would have to be a basis for the Danes to have a second referendum and the subsidiarity would have to be set in place? How can it be set in place before the Edinburgh summit?'

Mr Major replied: 'The Honourable gentleman is wriggling because he knows . . . he is trying to move away from the European policy he has always had. If he can't keep his principles in opposition, he will stay in opposition.'

Mr Smith retorted: 'It's a bit rich to be accused of a U-turn by a Prime Minister who has done a U- turn on devaluation on the ERM, who has done a U-turn on pit closures, who has done a U-turn on economic policy, and who has done a U-turn on his undertakings to this House.' The Prime Minister said Mr Smith had been touched on a sore spot. 'He knows his party have had seven changes of policy on Europe already. Even Salome ran out of veils at seven. And he has shed seven veils and what is revealed is less attractive than Salome.'

Mr Major said if the treaty was not ratified Britain would lose an opportunity to lead Europe away from centralism, into a free market and towards enlargement.

David Alton, Liberal Democrat MP for Liverpool, Mossley Hill, urged Mr Major to clarify whether he saw next Wednesday's vote 'as a matter of confidence in himself and his government'. Mr Major replied: 'It will be a substantive motion and we will invite support for it on its merits.'

Later, John Wilkinson, Conservative MP for Ruislip Northwood, appealed to the Government to have the debate on a technical motion for the adjournment of the House on the situation in the EC. Otherwise, he warned: 'I fear there will be an unholy row, and a wholly unnecessary one.'