Major's Tory critics likely to back off

Donald Macintyre
Sunday 26 June 1994 23:02

SEEN from Westminster, there is an irony in Mr Major's vetoing of Jean-Luc Dehaene in Corfu at the weekend. Some more sulphurous Tory party Euro-rebels would have preferred Mr Major to have given in and backed the Belgian. His bitterest opponents would have liked Mr Major to do anything that might have destabilised his position at home. But a more sophisticated view - freely canvassed by some Tory anti-Europeans in private last week - was that a Dehaene presidency would have mobilised even more Tory hostility to the European commission than exists already. One right-winger wryly put it last week: 'If Leon Brittan became president, some Tories might actually think Europe was a good thing.'

When Mr Major makes his statement in the Commons today, they will keep their disappointment to themselves. The more visible unease is on the party's other wing. One criticism made privately by Tory pro- Europeans is that instead of going all out for Sir Leon, it would have been better to have strained every British sinew at an earlier stage to promote a coalition behind the more acceptable and anglophile Ruud Lubbers. To this, British officials answer that given Sir Leon's success as a commissioner in Brussels, and his active campaigning for the job, it would have been difficult - even unreasonable given the respect in which he is held in Brussels - to dump him.

The pro-Europeans in the party have been feeling uneasy for some time. It grates with them that while the sceptics have never hesitated to expose disunity by scuttling off to television studios to say their piece, they have remained loyally silent, putting up with a more sceptical campaigning tone in the European elections than they would have liked, reluctant to criticise Mr Major publicly during the fiasco over qualified majority voting, and appalled at suggestions that Mr Major might underpin his veto in Corfu by installing more anti-Europeans in the Cabinet in his forthcoming reshuffle. As one backbencher on the pro-European left of the party put it yesterday: 'It is all very well Major complaining about Germany and France taking the small countries for granted, but he shouldn't take us for granted either.'

But there is more than one reason why Mr Major has not much to fear from this quarter. First, while they are disgruntled at Britain's isolation - and fear for the long-term consequences particularly for Anglo-German relations - they were never enthusiastic about Mr Dehaene. Secondly, the centre of gravity has shifted within the party on Europe to the point that the Positive Europeans command lower attendance at their meetings than, say, the party's right-wing 1992 group. Hence, Mr Major is likely to get a warm reception from most supporters when he makes his statement today.

There are two important caveats: some of the party's Europhobes will be putting Mr Major on probation, waiting to see whether history repeats itself in an echo of Jacques Delors' appointment in place of Claude Cheysson - vetoed in 1984 by Margaret Thatcher - and produces a candidate as unacceptable as Mr Dehaene. Secondly, Mr Major has spent some of his political capital in Europe. The signs are that Helmut Kohl will still be Chancellor after the German elections. It was Mr Kohl who rescued Britain over the social chapter opt-out at Maastricht. He may be less inclined to be helpful at the inter-governmental conference on the future of the EU in 1996.

All that said, Mr Major returned from Corfu stronger within his party than before the summit. After making preservation of Britain's veto a central issue of the European election campaign, he has shown he is prepared to use it. The fact that other governments were uneasy about being railroaded by the Franco-German axis belies suggestions that this was merely mindless isolationism. The leadership election season is five months away, but a challenge seems less likely than before the weekend.

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