Dare Major sack ministers?

Open defiance on single currency
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The Prime Minister was last night faced with open defiance by two government ministers, who contradicted government policy on the single currency in their election addresses.

John Horam, Minister for Health, says in an election address to the voters of Orpington: "I am opposed to the euro replacing the pound sterling, since this would take away more of our independence."

James Paice, an education minister, was also reported last night to say in his election address: "A single currency would be a huge step leading inexorably towards political union for which I do not believe Britain or Europe is ready."

In an attempt to minimise the political damage caused by the ministers, Conservative Central Office last night issued statements on behalf of both men saying they supported government policy.

But that attempt to get the best of both worlds, straddling opposition to a single currency while supporting the Government's wait-and-see line - will infuriate the party's pro-Europeans, led by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, and cause acute embarrassment to John Major and Cabinet colleagues in the run-up to the 1 May poll.

While Mr Major was able to escape the embarrassment of sacking the agriculture minister, Angela Browning, for an ambiguous message on a single currency last week, the clear-cut defiance of the Government line puts him into an impossible position. Restless pro-Europeans - including Mr Clarke - would not tolerate any breaking of the ranks on the single currency.

Many dozens of former Tory MPs seeking re-election have now published Euro-sceptic election addresses and the number expressing hostility to the Government's line could number 200 - or one-third of all candidates.

In an interview with BBC's Newsnight last night, Mr Horam, who is seeking re-election in Orpington, Kent, said that in a referendum vote on a single currency, he "would certainly be on the side of those who don't want a single currency".

He said his constituents had a right to know his views on a single currency because it involved "questions of major sovereignty", but he argued that his position was not in breach of the Government's wait-and-see policy. He also hinted that he would resign if he was a member of a Tory government which went into a single currency.

His statement issued late last night by Conservative Central Office said: "Of course I support the Government's negotiate and decide policy. I would not be in the Government otherwise and I would not expect to be in the future. I would have thought the policy was self-evident, otherwise I would have put it in my electoral address."

Mr Paice also appeared contrite in his statement issued by the Tory leadership: "Upon reflection I should have made this crystal clear in my election address.

"The Labour Party is clearly determined to make as much mischief out of this as possible to disguise the fact that a Labour government would sell out to Brussels."

Central Office appeared to be standing by the men last night and indicated that they were not in breach of government policy.

But Labour was in no doubt. Brian Wilson, its campaigns manager, said: "The Tories are not just divided, but disintegrating. The last straw they were clutching at was the hope that no ministers would desert the official line on Europe."

Mr Major and Mr Clarke carefully sculpted a wait-and-see agreement on the single currency, described as negotiate and decide, in advance of a special cabinet meeting on 23 January.

While hundreds of Conservative candidates up and down the country are breaking that compromise deal, with outright opposition to the single currency, ministers have a responsibility to keep collective responsibility.

The overriding difficulty for the Prime Minister is that the more Conservative candidates and ministers break ranks the more telling becomes Labour's argument that Mr Major is a weak leader.