Politics: The grey man turns purple

John Major has told Europe: 'Buy our beef, or else!' But why has he lost patience? And how safe is it?
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The Independent Online
John Major has moods; he has a more volatile temperament than his frequently monotonous performances on the platform or at the dispatch box suggest. His anger on Tuesday morning with friendly countries such as the Dutch - for saying in advance that they would support Britain over the beef ban and then failing to do so - was genuine. So was his frustration at what seems to him a violation of the normal laws of objectivity: that an international group of veterinarians can get together and decide an issue of supposedly scientific fact on a qualified majority voting system based on the size of their native countries.

Genuine and understandable; it would be easy, if it were not for the rampant jingoism of yesterday's Tory press, to construct a respectably non-Europhobic explanation for his announcement that Britain is going to be bloody-minded in the EU until her partners start to look serious about lifting the beef ban. The collapse of British hopes on Monday came despite the support of both the European Commission and the French government; it was not the familiar story of Britain isolated. A few in Mr Major's circle have revelled in the lack of precedent for the tactics he unveiled on Tuesday. But you don't have to go back to De Gaulle in 1965, or even Margaret Thatcher 20 years later, to find examples of Euro-brinkmanship - whether it is the Italians on milk quotas or Felipe Gonzalez threatening to pull the plug on the Maastricht negotiations unless he got more cash from the cohesion fund.

Since that gruesome weekend when ministers first learnt that there was almost certainly a direct link between the bovine BSE and the human CJD, the beef issue has come to dominate, and sometimes paralyse, the government machine. Talk to a minister these days about, say, the problems of GP fundholding and he glazes over, scarcely able to concentrate on such a distant and relatively unproblematic issue. Engage him on beef and he instantly becomes animated, as he describes how this is the most intractable problem he has encountered in a lifetime in politics; how expensive it may prove to solve; how many jobs are tied up in the farming, slaughtering, rendering, deboning and meat retail industries; how it still has the capacity to bring down the Government.

Among the more sulphurous Euro-sceptics, the beef ban was greeted with unhealthy glee as the issue that would finally make the cause of EU withdrawal respectable. Worse, their ranks were thickened by Tories with less strong views on Europe but lots of angry farmers in their constituencies. The creaking apology for a truce on Europe in the Tory party finally threatened to break on the backs of the country's stricken cattle.

Against that background there was an extraordinarily powerful impulse to do something, the impulse of an impatient motorist who, stuck in gridlocked traffic, takes an enormous detour simply to keep moving. But it was more than that. Patient diplomacy had been tried to the limit. Last Wednesday evening, John Major, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hogg and Malcolm Rifkind shut down all public mention of the programme of EU disruption that had been discussed in detail in a series of papers shuffling between Mr Rifkind's office and Mr Major's. They did so because they genuinely believed that Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands would back them. But for complex reasons - including the competitive desire of the Dutch to preserve a commercial advantage for its own artificial insemination industry - they didn't.

So the strategy had a decent logic. One minister said yesterday that the move would force the issue out of the agriculture council into the in-trays of foreign ministers and heads of government where it belongs. Ministers were surprised earlier in the month that Jacques Chirac, although supportive, was not well-informed on the detail of beef when he visited London.

Backbench delight was only increased by the fact that Tony Blair did not have the best of days on Tuesday. Caught, rather as Labour was in the very different circumstances of the Falklands, by the urge to oppose the mess of the current slaughter policy and the need not to appear unpatriotic, he exposed himself to the wounding charge from Mr Major that he had failed to "offer a single opinion".

For all these reasons, the pro-European Tories have fallen broadly into line. But they know, more than most, of the perils ahead. They lie in those little words in Mr Major's Tuesday statement: "and a clear framework leading to a lifting of the wider ban".

Let us suppose that the derivatives ban is lifted on June 3- 4. The serious Euro-sceptics won't be content with that. They don't trust the Prime Minister; they remember all too vividly how in 1994 he excited them into thinking he was going to confront the EU over the weight of the British vote under Qualified Majority Voting and then backed down ignominiously. The scalp they want is lifting the total ban, not some carefully nuanced language about the gradual reduction of its scope.

Never mind that 8,500 BSE cases are still predicted this year and 5,000 in 1997, and that therefore elements of the ban could well stay in force at least until next year. Never mind that a prolongation of the strategy will mean vetoing directives patently in Britain's interests. Never mind the cogent argument of the pro-Europeans that it is crazy to fight an election on Europe, because this is precisely the issue on which the party is so divided. There are plenty on the Tory right - up to and including Cabinet level - who would be more than content to maintain this guerrilla war until polling day, who thrill at the prospect of a beef election.

Armageddon may well not happen. Mr Major is scarcely keener on the prospect than Mr Heseltine or Mr Clarke (who is said by close allies genuinely to believe that the strategy may now work). There is still an even chance that MPs will return from the Whitsun recess to find that the political crisis in Europe has passed its worst. But yesterday there was more than one Tory, contemplating the fulsome headlines in yesterday's Mail and Express and their implication that only total victory will do, who remembered the grim remark of Major's 18th-century predecessor Robert Walpole on another European war: "They now ring the bells, but they will soon wring their hands."