Giants expose Europe divide

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 October, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 October, 1994, 12:00am

TWO giants of the right and left of the Conservative Party slugged it out yesterday - presenting two different visions of Britain's role in Europe.

As the conference was still reeling from suggestions by former chancellor Norman Lamont that Britain might pull out of the European Union (EU) altogether, both Michael Heseltine for the left and Michael Portillo for the right displayed the division which still grips the Cabinet.

Mr Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, rose amid high expectations to deliver his first conference speech since his heart attack.

He went out of his way to reject Mr Lamont's view saying Europe was 'the true manifestation of where Britain's self-interest lies and to contemplate leaving this behind, turning our backs or simply opting out would be the most abject surrender of national self-interest'.

He called on Britain to be 'at the heart of Europe' if it was to influence the way the EU developed.

Mr Portillo used his speech to reinforce his credentials as a Euro-sceptic.

But he attacked Labour leader Tony Blair for wanting to create a 'wasteland' with previous convictions 'cast away like empty beer cans'.

The Employment Secretary told the conference the EU was not working and ridiculed its 'crackpot' schemes.

The speech was being seen as another step on his journey to win the leadership of the party when John Major eventually goes. It also won the longest standing ovation.

He appeared to go as far as he feasibly could in rubbishing EU institutions saying: 'Sometimes you have to tell Brussels when to stop. Stop telling us how many hours we are allowed to work, stop telling kids they can't earn pocket money from doing their paper round, stop telling small businesses that they must give three months' paternity leave. Stop the rot from Brussels.' He said he would tear Labour apart 'speech by speech, sound bite by sound bite, until everyone can see Labour for what it really is, empty of philosophy, empty of inflation'.

Mr Portillo said the EU was not working, with dole queues in Europe getting longer.

That was why he would always fight against legislation like the European social chapter which imposed strict working conditions on industry.

Mr Portillo steered clear of Mr Lamont's idea of a British withdrawal from the EU but he fired up those who want the party to fight the next election on an anti-European ticket.

The siren call for the anti-Europeans began on Tuesday night when Mr Lamont warned that if Britain did not reject a federal superstate, the issue would 'poison' Tory politics for years to come.

In an attack on Mr Major's own position, he said: 'It has recently been said that the option of leaving the community is unthinkable. I believe this attitude is simplistic.' Although Mr Lamont has no strong personal following, he is the most senior Conservative to have suggested openly the idea of British withdrawal from the European Union if it goes ahead and insists on moves towards greater integration at a pivotal summit schedule for 1996.