Plain-speaking Major melts Bolger's wrath

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The Independent Online
Auckland - John Major seemed to have escaped almost unscathed yesterday from his first diplomatic argument with Commonwealth colleagues over French nuclear tests, writes Steve Crawshaw.

The Prime Minister's support for President Jacques Chirac, asserting France's right to carry out tests in the Pacific if it wished, has infuriated other Commonwealth countries - not only those in the Pacific region - as heads of government gathered for the Commonwealth summit here. Mr Major's decision to side with Mr Chirac was seen as a slap in the face for the Commonwealth itself.

Jim Bolger, New Zealand's Prime Minister, had made clear his dismay. When push came to shove, however, Mr Major's policy of directness-with- a-smile seemed to pay off yesterday. In a speech at a lunch given for him by Mr Bolger, Mr Major complained of the "distorting prism of long- range sound bites".

He talked of the "nice free ride" that he could have taken in condemning France, as Britain does not seek to carry out further tests. "So I could have taken that free ride. But I'm not prepared to do so because if I had, it would have been hypocritical

Mr Bolger stood nodding sympathetically as Mr Major emphasised: "Even among the best of friends, there are sometimes points of difference". Mr Bolger himself talked of a "warm reciprocity of views". The Jim-and- John body language confirmed the official version, that the meeting had been far from tense.

Even in terms of public reaction on the streets of Auckland, Mr Major got off lightly. A rally was called under the heading "Major Outrage". But only a few thousand turned up, and the rally was partly hijacked by Maori activists. Demonstrators argued amongst themselves, while anti- nuclear slogans looked forlorn.

Tonight the heads of government go into "retreat" to hammer out the final communique. This will address Nigeria as well as the nuclear testing.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyaoku, said he expected a "clear statement" on testing. If it is clear, Britain may be the lone dissenter. Britain hopes thestatement will be couched ingeneral terms but officials insist Britain will not back down: "We don't want a row if we can avoid it. But if they want a row, they'll get one."