Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fought off a storm of protest in Parliament today after refusing to fire one of her closest senior Cabinet aides for likening the European Community to Adolf Hitler, calling French economic leaders “poodles” and labeling Germany’s recent monetary union “a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe.”
Shouting “Sack him! Sack him!,” members of the opposition Labor Party charged that the comments made by Nicholas Ridley, Britain’s secretary of state for trade and industry, had damaged Britain’s image in the European Community, and they argued that Thatcher’s failure to fire him would imply that “his views are her views.”
In defending her decision to retain Ridley, 61, Thatcher cited his public apology for his statements, which appeared in the current issue of the Spectator magazine, released here this morning.
“On reflection,” Ridley declared in a one-line statement issued from Budapest, where he is attending a series of trade meetings, “I very much regret remarks reported in the Spectator and unreservedly withdraw them.”
Thatcher, straining to be heard through the torrent of angry shouts and jeers, added in the House of Commons, “I have always understood that it is the custom of this House . . . that such a withdrawal is gracefully accepted.”
In the Spectator interview, Ridley is quoted as blasting the European Community as “17 unelected reject politicians . . . with no accountability to anybody.”
“I’m not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might just as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly.
“This rushed takeover by the Germans on the worst possible basis, with the French behaving like poodles to the Germans, is absolutely intolerable,” he said.
Spectator Editor Dominic Lawson, who conducted the tape-recorded interview at Ridley’s 18th-Century home in Gloucestershire, noted within the interview Ridley’s incessant, angry references to the Germans and then asked the minister, “But surely Herr (Helmut) Kohl is preferable to Herr Hitler. He’s not going to bomb us, at least.”
To which, Ridley replied, “I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather have the (bomb) shelters and the chance to fight back, than simply being taken over by economics.
“He’ll (Kohl) soon be coming here and trying to say this is what we should do on the banking front, and this is what our taxes should be,” Ridley said. “I mean, he’ll soon be trying to take over everything.”
The magazine’s cover carried a cartoon of Ridley painting a Hitler mustache on a portrait of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The article’s title was “Saying the Unsayable About the Germans.”
Lutz Stavenhagen, a senior aide to Kohl, said, “This is an unusual and unprecedented event. The attacks against Federal Chancellor Dr. Helmut Kohl are scandalous.”
Sources within both the Labor and Conservative Parties said Thatcher’s decision to retain Ridley, who is among the last of her original ministers still in the Cabinet, indicates a deep split within the prime minister’s inner circle over the issue of future European unification.