Labour dog may win bone as Tories fight on Europe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 1996, 12:00am

THERE may be only one winner in the Tory civil war over Britain's relations with Europe - Labour leader Tony Blair.

Although Prime Minister John Major may have struck a deal on British beef exports at the European Union's Florence summit this weekend, he has proved to be the prisoner of the Euro-sceptics within his own party - and none more so than former prime minister Lady Thatcher.

Mr Major had no choice but to strike a bargain in Florence if he was to have any freedom of movement.

The beef crisis had proved a focal point for all the seething anger of the Euro-sceptics - many of whom want a complete withdrawal from the union.

He could mock right-wing backbenchers with their more extreme views. But what really hurt were the actions of Lady Thatcher in providing funds for the deeply Euro-sceptic European Foundation. Mr Major had thought he no longer needed to look over his shoulder at the stern visage of his predecessor, watching, noting, nit-picking, or so it seemed, his every move.

But her dramatic intervention was seen as an almighty rebuff to Mr Major at a time when he is determined to crack down hard on rebels on the Tory backbenches. She was in effect endorsing the presence of a fifth column within his own party.

There was no denying his fury as he retorted: 'Everyone must choose what to do with their own money. Lady Thatcher must answer for her own actions.

'Personally, I would have given the money to the Conservative Party.

'I am not going to be distracted by noises off on one side, or noises off on the other side. I have had a bellyful.' But nothing will silence Lady Thatcher over Europe. This is the unwelcome legacy of the notorious so-called foghorn diplomacy with which her detractors accused her of conducting European business when she was in power.

Mr Blair's role has been to accentuate Tory division.

In the midst of Mr Major's problems, Mr Blair visited Bonn last week to be greeted by Chancellor Helmut Kohl as a prime minister-in-waiting as he pledged a Labour government would be a leading member of the union, 'walking tall in Europe, not skulking on the sidelines'.

There were cries of treachery from furious Tory Euro-sceptics which only delighted the Labour leader, as the more he can prompt them to speak out the more the embarrassment to Mr Major.