Political truce ends in insults
BRITAIN From Europe Editor DAVID WALLEN in London
LONDON: Britain's political truce has ended in clashes over the future of the country in Europe, with the Prime Minister claiming only the Conservatives would preserve British sovereignty.
And any hope that the politeness over the death of Labour leader John Smith would herald a new approach to British politics was dashed as Labour and Conservatives traded insults, with the shadow foreign secretary Jack Cunningham calling the Tory manifesto ''a tissue of lies''.
All the major parties have launched their European election manifestoes, but Mr Cunningham said the Conservatives had embarked on a ''shameless campaign of dishonesty and disinformation''.
The Labour leadership is furious at the Tory manifesto, particularly a claim that the party would put ''in question'' Britain's veto on issues of national interest.
With the BBC on strike yesterday listeners and viewers were spared any on-air slanging matches but David Hunt, the Employment Secretary, accused Labour's own manifesto for the June 9 elections of being ''one big cover-up''.
Prime Minister John Major, aware that the heat has now turned on his own leadership, struck a patriotic note at a rally in Bristol stressing the election was ''not some trivial opinion poll''.
''Conservative policy will always be governed by cool calculation of Britain's national interests. Our interest is certainly not a weak Britain swamped in the European super-state that others may wish to create,'' Mr Major said.
The west of England is seen as home ground for the Liberal Democrats and Mr Major attacked their leader Paddy Ashdown, accusing him of ''seeking to dilute our national identity''.
The British nation was the ''cherished creation of generations and as we work to build a new and better Europe, we must never forget the traditions and inheritance of our past''.
''I never leave Britain without the spirit sinking just a little, and it always lifts the heart to set foot here once again,'' he said.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have made clear that they see the poll as a referendum on Mr Major's leadership - and even MPs on the Conservative right-wing warned the Prime Minister that natural supporters were ''on strike'' over his Government's record.
Margaret Beckett, Labour's acting leader, said the election would be about the highest tax increases in British history, the steady decline in the health service and the fear of crime.
''This election will also be about the Government's failure, time after time, to fight successfully for Britain's interest in Europe. The deep division within the Tory party over Britain's very membership of the European Union render's John Major's Government incapable of doing what is right for Britain,'' she said.
Mr Ashdown said the country had a chance to pass a national vote of no confidence in Mr Major and his administration. ''These elections have been described as a 'referendum' on John Major's Government. When a Government has so comprehensively betrayed its election promises and consistently fumbled its policies this should come as no surprise,'' he said.
The Liberal Democrats were enthusiastic on a single currency in Europe, with their manifesto pledging to ''move in step'' with Britain's European partners to achieve it.
Labour said it wanted a managed exchange rate system within Europe but said there needed to be real convergence on the economic performance of member states before there was progress towards economic and monetary union.
By contrast the Tories insisted Britain would not re-enter the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the foreseeable future and would give future Westminster parliaments the right to decide on a single currency.