Major's stand built on sand

JOHN MAJOR returned to Britain last night having drawn a line in the sand at Corfu - a similar line to the one drawn by his predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, whose 'no, no, no' diplomacy set Britain against the rest of Europe, and broke the back of her government.

By appearing to be isolated, defiant and resolute, Mr Major may have succeeded in rewriting the headlines about his own leadership - but at what cost?

For the British Prime Minister, who promised to put Britain 'at the heart of Europe', it was a profound turning point. Having developed his vision of a multi-speed, multi-track Europe in the European elections, he has firmly set Britain apart from her partners, reviving the nationalist tensions of Lady Thatcher's Bruges speech.

Yet he may have gone to Corfu with a different outcome in mind. He had not intended to be left alone, holding out against Jean-Luc Dehaene. He had hoped, when he went to dinner with the other 12 heads of government at the summit banquet, that there would be enough blocking votes to avoid Britain being isolated.

They had dined in the 1892 Achilleion palace, which was refurbished for the summit. But before they had covered the 10 miles back to town, the Greek presidency was summoning them, in a series of frantic car- phone calls, back to the restaurant for an emergency meeting.

The ailing Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, 75, accompanied everywhere by Mimi, his blonde wife, had returned to his hotel and gone to bed. His place was taken by Theodoros Pangalos, the Greek Foreign Minister. Some of the heads of state could not be turned back, and foreign ministers went in their places.

Throughout a day fraught with horsetrading in bilateral meetings, and with temperatures in the 80s, John Major had tried to build alliances to avoid being isolated with the veto. He had breakfasted with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to secure Italian opposition to Dehaene. And he had held a bilateral meeting with Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, on the future of Northern Ireland. The Irish delegation was baffled by his tactics. It could not understand why he was opposing Mr Dehaene, to whom the British had no obvious objections.

Mr Major and Mr Reynolds were due to hold a joint press conference outside the gates of the Palace of St Michael and St George in the main square in Corfu, but Mr Major was so anxious to hear reports from his officials about the other delegations that he missed it.

As the night wore on, it appeared that the bandwagon was rolling for Mr Dehaene, but there was enough support for the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers, to stop Mr Major from being isolated.

At the dinner, the 12 leaders discussed the 1996 intergovernmental conference. When it turned to the choice of the president, Lubbers and Dehaene withdrew to their hotel, the Corfu Hilton, leaving the delegations to cast their votes.

Mr Major had been expecting informal soundings to be taken, but the Irish Prime Minister now insisted on a vote being taken by putting names of the preferred candidates on paper. This immediately provoked a row at the table, but the objections of Mr Major and the minority were overruled.

Mr Papandreou went round the table, asking each to state his preference on paper. When the votes were counted, it gave Mr Dehaene the clear lead: eight votes to Mr Lubbers's three and Sir Leon Brittan's one. The Dutch delegation, Italy's Mr Berlusconi and the Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, had voted for Mr Lubbers. The one piece of paper bearing Sir Leon's name was written by Mr Major.

The Greek presidency said the meeting would be reconvened at 10 am yesterday. Mr Major left the dinner thinking he was safely protected from isolation by the blocking votes of the Italians and the Spanish. Things appeared to be going his way.

But the brinkmanship began after midnight, when the delegations were called back to the Achilleion. During an informal discussion, Mr Major was still opposing Mr Dehaene.

But when the pressure was applied, the Italians and the Spanish were to switch their support behind Mr Dehaene, leaving Mr Lubbers and Mr Major on their own.

At 3.10am, Chris Meyer, the Prime Minister's press secretary, used the word 'veto' for the first time. It had never been openly threatened before. Mr Meyer had hinted at it, by insisting in a pre-summit briefing at the Foreign Office that Britain would be seeking a candidate who could command a consensus among the 12.

Europhobic Tories had privately warned of trouble if Mr Major returned having accepted Mr Dehaene. 'If he accepts Dehaene, there will be a hell of a row. It will be much worse than the one over qualified majority voting,' one Tory right- winger said.

The dispute over QMV was humiliating for Mr Major. He threatened to use the veto, accusing John Smith, the late Labour leader, of being 'Monsieur Oui, poodle of Brussels'. But at the conference in Greece, Britain climbed down, and the blow to Mr Major's credibility led to a fresh bout of speculation about his future.

Mr Major had gone to Corfu after stabilising his shaky position somewhat by doing less disastrously than expected in the European elections. The use of the veto had been the centrepiece of his strongly Eurosceptic campaign.

With Tony Blair preparing to lead the Labour Party, the Conservative Party settled down down to the prospect of a long slog against a freshened Opposition. The threat to Mr Major had receded, but he needed to prove his toughness to be sure of leading the Tories into the next election.

Reports of the threat by Mr Major to use the veto at Corfu began to emerge last week, after a pre-summit briefing at the Foreign Office.

It was judged to be an attempt by a weak leader to appease his rebellious right wing. It delighted the anti-Europe rump of the Tory right, but dismayed mainstream Tory MPs, who could not understand why the Prime Minister was apparently boxing himself into a corner where he would either have to back down or stand alone.

Some ministerial aides clearly expected another climbdown by Mr Major. Privately they said that they preferred Mr Dehaene to Sir Leon who had 'gone native'. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs last week that he had no 'personal objections' to Mr Dehaene. So what changed at Corfu?

In his speech to the European Council, Mr Major was unable to offer any clear reason why he thought Mr Dehaene was 'not qualified' for the job. But by that time, to have backed down would have been too damaging for Mr Major. The Prime Minister's show of strength may yet, with hindsight, be seen as an admission of his own weakness.

(Photograph omitted)

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