By Tommy Norton in London
Former Partido Popular (PP) leader Jose Maria Aznar gained a “substantial boost” from a visit to London on the eve of the 1993 Spanish elections, during which he discussed Gibraltar with Prime Minister John Major, according to papers released to The National Archives.
Mr Aznar, who had been courted by the British Conservative Party for a number of years, came to Britain with the aim of boosting his chances of unseating the long-serving Socialist Prime Minster Felipe Gonzalez.
However British officials warned Mr Major that with the result of the election in the balance, he should avoid “too big a smile in the photo-call” as “we may have to work with Felipe G” after the election.
In June 1993, Mr Gonzalez’s PSOE won the most seats in parliament for the fourth election in succession, but fell short of an overall majority and was forced to rely on the votes of Catalan nationalists to stay in power.
Ahead of the meeting between Mr Aznar and Mr Major in May 1993, officials told the British Prime Minister he should make it clear that were Mr Aznar to win “he can’t expect good relations with us if he pushes his luck on Gibraltar”.
A confidential briefing from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) described the Partido Popular as taking a “markedly confrontational line on Gibraltar”.
Although their electoral manifesto had omitted an earlier threat to close the border, it advocated a negative approach, including denouncing the UK in international fora, negotiations on reversion of sovereignty to Spain, tighter border controls and implementation of the 1987 Airport Agreement.
At the meeting, Mr Major urged the PP leader not to make Gibraltar an electoral issue as things that were said during the course of a campaign could box him in and add to the difficulties later on.
Mr Aznar – described in briefings as “very serious and humourless” – said he saw no danger of that happening.
The PP leader had also visited Mr Major two years previously, in October 1991, where he had pushed a harder line on Gibraltar, telling the British Prime Minister that “this was a toothache that had gone on too long”.
“Twenty thousand people should not be allowed to give 90 million people a toothache for ever,” he is reported to have said.
Mr Major told Mr Aznar that the UK’s commitment to the people of Gibraltar was “an unshakeable bottom line” but that he was encouraged by the number of other areas where Conservative and PP policies were the same, adding that he wished to see Mr Aznar as Spanish Prime Minister.
Mr Major got his wish in 1996, when Mr Aznar emerged as the leader of the largest party in early elections, although their terms in office only coincided for just over a year before Mr Major was ejected by Tony Blair.
The governments of Mr Blair and Mr Aznar would go on to formulate plans for joint sovereignty over the Rock, which were comprehensively rejected by Gibraltarians in a 2002 referendum.