Major ends Tory session with bravado on treaty

October 10, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- John Major restated his case for Britain's participation in the European Community yesterday. It was, he said, "a cold, clear-eyed calculation of the British interest."

The prime minister ended a weeklong Conservative Party conference with a buoyant speech urging party unity, an occasionally humorous address that tried to put an harmonious end to a week of bitter debate.

The conference, which was concluded yesterday in Brighton, was to be a delayed celebration of the party's electoral victory in April, a salute to its leader, Mr. Major, and a festival of Tory ascendancy in British politics.

It turned out to be an argumentative debate over the government's policy toward Europe and management of the economy.

Mr. Major, current president of the European Community, faces a tough battle in getting parliamentary approval of a bill ratifying the Maastricht treaty on European unity. He also must develop an economic strategy to replace a policy that was based on membership in Europe's Exchange Rate Mechanism, which regulates currencies.

Contrary to Mr. Major's promises, the economy has worsened, not improved, since the election. New taxes, higher interest rates and deep cuts in public spending and services are all possible.

Britons also seem to be turning against the Maastricht treaty and against Europe in general; they want a referendum on it instead of letting Parliament decide alone.

They seem to be turning against John Major, too. His popularity going into the conference was dropping as fast as the value of pound sterling, and his policies are disintegrating as his party pulls in two different directions over Europe.

Thus, in his speech he evoked pleasant memories of last spring's electoral victory against all predictions. He praised his Conservative Party as an "irresistible political force" when united and denounced most of the attacks on the Maastricht treaty as "distortions."

"We got what we wanted" at Maastricht, he said, and likened those who opposed the treaty to "Don Quixotes: fighting imaginary battles, tilting at windmills in the belief they are giants, seeing things that are notthere."

Maastricht's principal aims are to bring the EC to a single currency by the end of the century and to synchronize further the foreign and defense policies of the 12 members of the community.

"If I believed what some people say about the treaty," Mr. Major said, "I would vote against it myself."

A Gallup Poll last month revealed that the number of Britons who disapproved of the government's performance had reached 60 percent, up from 46 percent in late May. The same poll showed that only 47 percent of those asked where satisfied with Mr. Major personally, a decline from 58 percent in May.

There were two tracks to Mr. Major's overall strategy when he replaced Margaret Thatcher at the end of 1990. One was to maintain the integrity of the pound sterling in an effort to wring inflation out of the British economy. This was to be done within Europe's Exchange Rate Mechanism .

The second was to take Britain to "the heart of Europe," as he put it, there to help fashion the policies by which the EC would operate and thus assure that those policies were congenial to British interests.

That British interests came first Mr. Major proved last November in Maastricht when he managed to get the other 11 members of the EC to accept special provisions for Britain: the right to allow the Parliament to vote on whether Britain would go all the way to a single currency with the rest and an exclusion from the treaty's Social Chapter, governing work rules in the community.

Yesterday, he reiterated that intention with his final words: "Britain's interests will come first, last, always."

Despite the occasional bravado of his speech, many observers here believe Mr. Major's strategies are in shreds. The pound continues its downward float following the debacle of Sept. 16, when the government, unable to stave off an assault by money traders by raising interest rates, withdrew from the system regulating Europe's currencies. Last week, sterling had fallen 14 percent in relation to the German mark, an all-time low.

Mr. Major has said he is determined to bring the Maastricht treaty to a vote either before or just after the end of the year, and to do it in the House of Commons and not in a referendum.

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