Jittery Tory nerves were not helped by a study commissioned by Lord (Jeffrey) Archer, the former party deputy chairman, which concludes that Sir James Goldsmith's anti-EU Referendum Party could "turn any foreseeable Conservative overall majority into a hung parliament ... and any Labour landslide into a rout''.
As Tory MPs, canvassing over the weekend for Thursday's local elections, braced themselves for another batch of losses showing little or no sign of political recovery, Cabinet ministers were forced to dismiss speculation that the Tory party could split after the general election.
A secret internal survey by the main group of right-wing Tory MPs found an "overwhelming majority" of its 120 members plan to go beyond party policy by backing a referendum on any further moves towards European integration or opposing a single currency, or both, in their personal election addresses.
Together with the known views of candidates chosen so far for safe Tory seats, the survey means that it is likely that a majority of Tory MPs after the next election will be firm Euro-sceptics. John Townend (C, Bridlington), the leader of the right-wing "92 Group", refused to comment on the survey, but called on the Prime Minister to respond to the "tremendous change in public opinion over the last year and especially the last few months".
Tory Euro-scepticism has gained ground in the wake of the EU ban on world- wide exports of British beef and last week's rebellion in a Commons vote on the powers of the European Court of Justice.
The "92 Group" initiative, designed to put pressure on the Government, lends substance to the spectre of a post-election split in the party, which was raised publicly over the weekend by two Tory MPs.
George Walden, the disillusioned MP for Buckingham, who is retiring, told Channel 4's A Week in Politics that he believed the split was inevitable and would be "quite a good thing". It could produce a realignment of British politics, he said, although it would occur because of "bad faith" in the Tory party.
And Michael Carttiss (Gt Yarmouth), a hard-line Euro-rebel, said: "An increasing number of Conservative MPs think the party will break into two if we lose the election."
One "92 Group" member, David Evans (Welwyn Hatfield), who ran John Redwood's failed Tory leadership campaign last year, said: "We're heading for a situation where it's every man for himself."
Other members of the "92 Group" have privately said that they are happy at the prospect of forcing the pro-Europeans out of the party and causing an early general election - which they regard as lost anyway.
Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, and William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales, poured scorn on the idea of a Tory split in a series of Sunday interviews.
But Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, effectively urged Tory pro-Europeans to take up the fight without regard for party unity. One lesson Sir James Goldsmith "has taught us is that those of us who believe in making a success of British membership of the European Union have to find our voices and not hold back for fear of making a row," he said on BBC radio.
Fellow pro-European Jim Lester (Broxtowe) also expressed his frustration at the "sheer foolhardy proselytisation of a case which is disastrous for Britain". Speaking to the Independent, he dismissed Sunday newspaper speculation that his ally Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, had "told friends" he had thrown his weight behind pro-European Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell's campaign for the Tory leadership. "If he's got anything to say, he says it himself," Mr Lester said.
Mr Hurd was responding to an NOP poll for the Sunday Express, taken in David Mellor's Putney constituency, which showed that 50 per cent would "consider" voting for Sir James, who plans to stand as candidate for his Referendum Party there.
Sir James threatens to spend pounds 20m and stand hundreds of candidates on the single issue of demanding a referendum on the current terms of Britain's membership of the EU.
However, the NOP poll showed that only 7 per cent were "very likely" to vote for him, and that 60 per cent said that if other EU countries launch a single currency, Britain should seek to take part.
Tory abyss, page 2Reuse content