John Major's defence of France's nuclear tests is likely to provoke an onslaught against Britain at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland, New Zealand next week. With the Queen in attendance as head of the Commonwealth, Britain looks like being isolated and embarrassed.
Australia and New Zealand will lead moves to condemn France and China for their nuclear tests. Britain's earlier refusal to oppose the French tests, saying they were "a matter for the French government", irritated Canberra and Wellington. They felt let down by London's disinclination to indicate any sympathy for its Commonwealth friends over an issue which has prompted protests throughout the Pacific.
But Mr Major's public defence of the tests when he met President Jacques Chirac on Monday, three days after France had exploded its third nuclear device in eight weeks, provoked criticism of Britain across political lines in Australia yesterday.
One of the Australian Labor government's most senior ministers, Bob McMullan, trade and acting foreign minister, said: "If Mr Major is of this view, perhaps he should contact Mr Chirac and organise for the next tests to be conducted under the English Channel ... But we shouldn't let this detract from the main game. Australia's primary aim is to mobilise international opinion against the French tests. Australia has the overwhelming majority of support on this from other Commonwealth countries.''
John Howard, leader of the opposition liberal-National coalition, said: "Mr Major has weakened the international effort to persuade France to stop the tests in the face of growing world anger at the French, even from within Britain. Mr Major fails to understand the hostility in Australia and among Pacific nations to the French tests. In New Zealand, he will discover the extent of anger within the Commonwealth.''
Alexander Downer, opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, said: "His comments show an insensitivity to the Australian people. He has shown no understanding of the growing desire of the world to be rid of nuclear weapons ... Blood ties for Australia and New Zealand have counted for little. It's a case of water is thicker than blood."
Jim Bolger, New Zealand's Prime Minister and host of the Commonwealth summit, had been hoping to steer a conciliatory course after meeting Mr Major and Mr Chirac at the United Nations 50th-anniversary session last week. But Mr Major's defence of Mr Chirac has dashed any hopes Mr Bolger had of averting a row.
Officials in Canberra and Wellington expressed dismay yesterday that Mr Major could have gone so far on the eve of a summit to be held in a country which has been a prime mover against the French tests. The British stand is likely further to weaken relations with the old Commonwealth countries now it has apparently demonstrated again that it places membership of the EU and the nuclear club ahead of Commonwealth concerns.
Mr Major's decision will also put the Queen in an awkward position in Auckland, particularly as she may face protests from New Zealanders angered by the Anglo-French nuclear alliance.