That statement by Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, left Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, spluttering that Mr Cook's leadership colleagues would be "furious".
Mr Cook told London Weekend Television's Jonathan Dimbleby programme: "If you didn't join in 1999, it is unlikely you would be joining in the course of the next Parliament."
The Labour manifesto says: "There are formidable obstacles in the way of Britain being in the first wave of membership, if EMU [Economic and Monetary Union] takes place on 1 January 1999."
In a debate with his Conservative and Liberal Democrat opponents, Mr Cook said yester- day: "If you didn't join in 1999, it's very difficult to see a government that has taken the decision that Britain wasn't ready in 1999, coming to the decision that it would be ready by the year after, or the year after that.
"So, in the event that Britain doesn't join in the first wave, whilst we will continue to review this and whilst of course we'll continue to look very carefully at the figures, I would have thought the probability is that one is looking towards the subsequent parliament."
Mr Rifkind protested: "Gordon Brown is going to be rather furious with Robin Cook. I bet that remark wasn't cleared with him. Let's wait to see whether Tony Blair clears what Robin Cook has just said, and whether Gordon Brown confirms it."
But while the Foreign Secretary is barred from going beyond the Cabinet's agreed line on the single currency, hammered out between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on 23 January, he did appear to mark out a contradiction in the Conservative Party manifesto.
That says in the European section: "We will not accept other changes to the Treaty that would further centralise decision-making, reduce national sovereignty, or remove our right to permanent opt-outs."
Mr Rifkind said yesterday: "Robin on this programme a few weeks ago said if the single currency happened, and it seemed to be working for France and Germany, then Britain ultimately would have to join.
"I think that's the wrong criteria. I think you have to judge what are the implications for the United Kingdom ... but also whether any benefits of a single currency would be so substantial as to outweigh the loss of national decision-making on crucial things like interest rates."
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "Robin Cook's shift in position yet again today and Tory divisions on a single currency means only one party has a clear and unambiguous proposal to make to the British people on this issue."Reuse content