Clarke sent into the lions' den

John Major last night surrendered to growing Tory backbench anger over Europe by sending Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, to make an unprecedented statement to the Commons today in an attempt to placate the MPs and focus attention on tomorrow's Budget.

The next seven days - with the Budget and announcements on public expenditure, including increases in spending on health, schools and the police - will be the most important in Mr Major's strategy for winning the election against all the odds.

He yesterday telephoned Mr Clarke to ask him to step into the lion's den to rescue the Budget strategy, in spite of a mauling which he can expect from Euro-sceptics. But the mishandling of his own back bench has further diminished Mr Major's authority, according to critics. "It's a classic bit of Major inaction - he marches them up to the top of the hill, and leaves it to Ken Clarke to march them down again," a leading Tory Euro-sceptic said.

In a further climb-down, the Prime Minister will meet the chief whip Alastair Goodlad today to agree a date for the debate on Europe which the Tory MPs were demanding, probably over two days before the European summit in Dublin in mid-December. But some of those who had been the loudest in calling for the debate last night said that hardly mattered.

By securing the statement by the Chancellor 24 hours before he delivers his Budget package, the backbench Tory MPs had made their point to Mr Major that they have to be listened to.

That point will be reinforced tonight, when Mr Major meets the leaders of the 1922 Committee, Sir Marcus Fox, Dame Jill Knight, and Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith. There is likely to be a concerted effort to smooth over the row, but the message they were asked to take to the Prime Minister by the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs went further than the immediate row over Europe. They were told to tell Mr Major of the unrest in the ranks over Europe and a wide range of blunders which have damaged morale, including the mishandling of the ban on heavy calibre handguns.

The Chancellor today will seek to reassure the more than 100 Tory backbenchers who last week signed a protest motion in the Commons that he will not make any binding agreements at the meeting of European economic ministers next Monday that would undermine Britain's opt-out from a single currency. He will be reiterating the assurances he gave in a letter to all MPs sent out last Friday by the Treasury.

A Treasury aide said Mr Clarke wanted to "correct misleading reports" over the weekend about leaked European documents which the Euro-sceptics claimed had underlined their concern about Britain's partners seeking to impose fines on countries outside a single currency. Mr Clarke will flatly deny those claims and he will be open to questions for about half an hour in the chamber.

Sources close to John Redwood, the former leadership challenger, said: "We regard this as a victory. This is what we wanted all along. We wanted the Chancellor to come to the House and explain his action and to make it clear that the stabilisation pact will have no implications for the domestic control of Britain's economy."

By acting now, the Prime Minister has removed any threat of an attempt to bring down the Government before Christmas, although the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, reserved the right to vote against the Government on issues such as fish quotas and the ban on beef exports.

Mr Trimble denied a weekend report that he had done a deal with Mr Major to reject Sinn Fein demands for entry into the peace process in return for a guarantee to prop up the Tories. The shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, accused the Government of "chaos and disarray" after Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, suggested there could be an emergency debate next Friday before it was disowned by Downing Street sources. "They could not run a bath," was the caustic comment from Tony Blair's office.

Philip Oppenheim, one of the Chancellor's junior Treasury ministers, defended the Government but distanced himself from the leadership, telling Teresa Gorman on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost yesterday: "I am a Euro-sceptic. I am not in the same league as you, but I would find it totally unacceptable if the Government were trying to commit ourselves to European economic and monetary union."

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