Why beef-war poncing was put to pasture

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The Independent Online
Last summer, in the second agonies of the agricultural crisis brought about by the feeding of demented sheep to healthy cows, the Government discovered two main culprits.

They were (in order of their sins), the "right honourable lady, the member for Peckham" (Harriet Harman) - who had betrayed Britain by saying that she wouldn't care to feed beef to her children - and the perfidious Continentals. The latter, you will remember, were- supposedly forced into submission by the Government's policy of non-cooperation, which preceded the Inter Governmental Conference in Florence. The ban, like previous wars, would be over by Christmas.

Since then, ministers have fallen silent in the House. Until yesterday, when Labour helpfully tabled its own debate on the handling of the BSE crisis, and just as thoughtfully supplied Robin Cook to open it.

Malcolm Rifkind, author of the Government's strategy, was not present to defend his policies. Perhaps he felt that, having had a tiring Global Vision on Monday, it was only fair to let Agriculture Secretary Douglas Hogg be tortured to death by the Red Gnome of Livingston on Wednesday.

Mr Cook reminded the House that Mr Hogg had promised a lifting of the ban in "the back-end of the year". But, he asked, was December the back- end of the year? Or were we "looking down the front-end of another year?"

What had happened to the Policy Of Non-Cooperation in Europe (given the acronym of PONCE in the Foreign Office)? "A fitting term, given the posturing involved," he quipped. It had, of course been absurd - isolating us completely and destroying the bonhomie of the Danes, the Anglophilia of the French and the stolid good sense of the Greeks. "Previous governments - including Tory ones - have been sensible enough to ensure that either France or Prussia was on our side."

Mr Cook must know, however, that that era has gone. There is nothing and nobody over the Channel that the governing party admires these days. If one of those aliens who keep on abducting Birmingham housewives and probing them scientifically, were to desist for a day or so and come to the Commons, he she or it would soon have a very particular view of life sur le Continent.

There, unemployed beggars line the crumbling pavements to watch the bloated bureaucrats (whose social chapters and minimum wages have destroyed their jobs), travel to meetings to discuss how to double-cross the British over something or other.

For instance, during Employment questions earlier, a minister had spoken of how the "French, Spaniards and Italians would be pathetically grateful" for part-time jobs, like those in Britain. We can expect the small boats, crammed to the gunwales with desperate Dons, to start arriving soon.

Europe did indeed figure when a pale Mr Hogg made his reply, which he did in a curious posture, crouching over the despatch box, leaving only a mad tuft of grey hair, two protruding arms, and the reflection from his spectacles to be seen above it.

But Mr Hogg was no longer scourging the EU, even when invited to do so by that cantankerous old xenophobe, John Townend (Con Bridlington). Mr Townend spoke of Britain "doublecrossed over beef, as over working hours", because they "enjoy taking British export markets". But no, said Mr Hogg. The member states were "facing strong internal pressures ... they do not appear to be in a position to agree to a rapid lifting of the ban".

So what on earth was the PONCING for?