Major Tries to Rally Tory Support for His New EC Stance
JOHN MAJOR has decided that the solution to his problems on European policy lies not so much in the corridors of Brussels as in the government whips' office in the House of Commons, a few hundred yards away from his Downing Street residence.With just a month to go before the European Community summit in Maastricht, Netherlands, Britain's prime minister is pinning his hopes on two votes designed to isolate Conservative Party skeptics opposed to European political and monetary union. In a surprise move he decided Tuesday to attempt to unseat Bill Cash, the anti-EC chairman of the Conservative Party's European Affairs Committee, and replace him with a former Cabinet minister sympathetic to closer ties with Europe. Mr. Major's allies persuaded Sir Norman Fowler to run for the post as the prime minister's "Europe candidate," and the government whips warned Conservative backbenchers that a vote against him would be seen as an act of disloyalty to Major. Sir Norman won the vote by a solid margin. Following this move, Major strategically called for a House of Commons vote on the government's European policies. The vote will take place next week after a two-day debate in which Major intends to outline his negotiating strategy for Maastricht. Here, too, the government whips will play a crucial role. A senior Conservative Party source said Wednesday that parliamentary managers would make it "bluntly clear" to the Euroskeptics in the party that Major expects a ringing endorsement of his negotiating strategy, so that he can go to Maastricht with the solid backing of his party. The source said that with the party whips on, "dissidents could be limited to a mere handful." They denied that one of their main objectives was to head off an attempt by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to challenge Major's European policies by convincing her in advance that she would have few allies to support her stand. As he honed his parliamentary strategy, Major for the first time indicated to Britain's EC partners that there is "give" in his government's negotiating position. At an EC foreign ministers' meeting in the Netherlands Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd provisionally agreed that the European Parliament could be given direct law-making powers as part of a package on European union. His move signaled Britain's first significant concession on political union. The concession, a Foreign Office source said, was a sign of Britain's flexibility and good faith. Until now Britain has stood firm against giving the European Parliament enhanced powers. Major, who succeeded Mrs. Thatcher a year ago, is showing confidence that he can outflank the Euroskeptics and achieve a deal at Maastricht that the House of Commons will endorse. In a key speech last Monday at the Lord Mayor of London's annual banquet, he hinted London's eventual readiness to allow the Community a bigger say in education, health, and environmental questions. But he made it clear at the banquet, considered an occasion for delivering benchmark government policy statements, that the price of British flexibility on such issues would be the EC's readiness to allow Britain to opt out of a single European currency, at least for the time being. Even on the contentious issue of a single currency, Major appeared to suggest Britain might be ready to abandon sterling in a few years - if only to avoid the economic disadvantages of being odd man out in a united Europe. "When the moment comes we shall need to weigh carefully the issues of sovereignty and accountability raised by a single currency, against the potential impact on our influence and prosperity were we to take a different decision from our principal competitors. It would be wrong to decide now to join a single currency, but it would be equally wrong to decide now that in no circumstances will we ever do so."