Election '97 : John Major takes on the Tories

Prime Minister's personal appeal on Europe

It was the defining moment of the 1997 general election campaign; the point at which the Prime Minister turned his back on Labour, and took on the opponents within his own Government and party.

Openly defied by junior ministers who had broken ranks and all the rules of Whitehall discipline to oppose a European single currency, John Major was forced to take on the dissidents.

But the rot continued apace last night, with yet another minister, Eric Forth, coming out against the single currency.

Instead of celebrating a further fall in unemployment, as planned, the Conservative leader turned his daily press conference into a repeat of his long-standing appeal to keep the option open on a single currency.

To the delight of the Tory pro-Europeans, Mr Major courageously stood his ground.

But he left his party's vociferous Euro-sceptics in despair that he had not snatched the opportunity to swing the election by grabbing for the votes of diehard opponents of anything to do with Brussels.

Opening his vain appeal to the rebels, Mr Major said: "Everyone who's been out there in the country in this campaign knows where the heart and gut of this election lies." That issue, he said, was the question of a federal Europe.

All the reports The Independent received from around the country yesterday suggested that Europe was not at all the number one issue with the voters. The prime concerns were education, health and crime.

A former minister defending a safe Tory seat said that the only people raising Europe were older voters, in their 50s and 60s, who were essentially Euro-sceptic. That was an impression from a number of former ministers who had been canvassing.

But there was no question about the target of Mr Major's appeal - his own party. Never had such a vital issue been "so woefully misunderstood".

Mr Major said: "No one at this moment, no one whatever they say, whatever their predilections may be, wherever their instincts may lie, no one can be absolutely certain in what way it would affect us, or what the outcome will be, whether we joined the single currency, or whether we stayed out."

Yet the Conservative ministers and MPs who had come out against the single currency appeared certain enough.

Mr Major's own assessment of the balance for and against the currency could not have been more even-handed. If it worked, the single currency could provide rising living standards across Europe. If it failed it could bring "economic catastrophe across the whole of Europe."

But he concluded by saying that until the negotiations had been finalised no one could know which way the balance would lie.

"Whether you agree with me or disagree with me; like me or loathe me, don't bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British nation."

Mr Major said he was often urged by critics to rule the whole single currency issue in, or out, entirely. "It would be splendidly decisive, they say - so splendidly decisive you would send the British Prime Minister naked into that conference chamber with nothing to negotiate, with nothing to wring the best deal out of our partners.

But the immediate reaction from his own party gave few grounds for hope of unity.

John Redwood, the most prominent dissident, said: "I am not going to change my position. I am a consistent man. I have thought it through. On principle I oppose the single currency economically, constitutionally and politically."

More damaging, Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, told BBC radio's World at One that he supported the two Ministers who had stepped out of line - Mr Horam and Mr Paice. "We are putting a marker down simply to say that we have very strong feelings and we don't want a single currency. We don't want to lose the pound," he said.

As for the two ministers, Mr Major told his press conference: ""We have spoken to those two ministers overnight. They realise how unwise they were. They realise that they have to accept our negotiate-and-decide policy. They realise that they are bound by collective responsibility.

But the chairman of Mr Horam's Orpington constituency Conservative association, Phil Winter, told the World at One: "...As far as Mr Horam is concerned we have always understood he has maintained the party line of wait and see, but he has expressed his opinion and has the full support of the association."

From the party's pro-European wing, one Minister said: "Mr Major's response was courageous, and it could prove a turning point in the party's internal battle. Certainly, he has surprised those of us who were beginning to despair of when he was going to stand his ground."

Intruding on the Tories' grief, Tony Blair said in Southampton: "We are witnessing the collapse of the Conservative Party under the weight of its own divisions."

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