The Government in Crisis: Major holds firm on commitment to Maastricht

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR yesterday reiterated his commitment to the Maastricht process, telling the Commons it would be folly for Britain to isolate itself from the rest of the European Community.

With his leadership under criticism from inside and outside the Conservative Party, the Prime Minister dealt robustly with Question Time exchanges on Europe and a challenge from John Smith over the economy.

He accused the Labour leader and the Liberal Democrats' leader Paddy Ashdown of undermining Europe by their 'manoeuvrings' over next week's debate on the Maastricht Bill.

Mr Major said there had been 'three historic mistakes' over the last 30 years; the first when Britain failed to join the EC at the outset and then when, twice, other countries refused to accept British membership.

'They were mistakes of great damage, not just to this country but to the whole of the EC. Today, with the possibility of enlargement, through the changing policies in Europe, we have more chance than ever we had before of building a European Community in the image that we in this country wish to see. It would be folly at this stage to throw that away by isolating ourselves in the Community by ending our influence. That's the way that the sort of community we don't wish to see comes about, not the sort of community my colleagues and I have been fighting for for some years.'

Mr Ashdown tried to exploit Mr Major's difficulties, asking: 'Does the Prime Minister not realise that the terrible damage done to his credibility and to that of his government by his foolish manoeuvrings over the last week have undermined the case for Europe for which there is a majority in this House, as well as holding up the chance of recovery for which there is such a desperate need in the nation?' Mr Major replied: 'What undermines the case is the manoeuvrings of the Rt Hon gentleman (Mr Smith) and the Rt Hon gentleman himself.'

Urged by Patrick Nicholls, Conservative MP for Teignbridge, to continue to fight for British interests, he promised to keep the commitments he had honoured at Maastricht not to accept the imposition of a single currency and the social chapter. John Smith focused instead on the economy and a CBI survey showing manufacturers expect to shed 75,000 jobs over the next three months.

Mr Major had earlier told a Labour backbencher that the report showed output expectations up on September, export optimism up on July and, for the first time, a balance of firms reporting unit costs down. But Mr Smith asked how he could take comfort from a survey which predicted jobs, output, orders, investment and confidence would all be down.

When Mr Major repeated his claims, adding that manufacturing output was up in the first two quarters, car production up sharply in September and retail sales up in the second and third quarters, the Labour leader retorted: 'The complacency of that answer will shock the public. The public are sick and tired of failed economic policies as well as bogus economic promises of recovery which are never ever fulfilled.'