Election '97: No Euro surrender: Tory candidates defy Major

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The Independent Online
A nationwide Tory grass-roots mutiny over Europe undermined John Major's efforts to turn his fire on Labour's attitude to Brussels last night.

A broad selection of Conservative candidates' election addresses, obtained by The Independent, shows outright defiance against the single-currency line hammered out by the Cabinet in January.

While Mr Major and his Cabinet colleagues have agreed to keep the currency option open, the candidates' revolt shows that another Conservative government would be most unlikely to muster a Commons majority for entry.

One of the Tory rebels who made life so difficult for the Government over the Maastricht Treaty said yesterday that there was not a "cat in hell's chance" of Conservative MPs voting for the euro.

The BBC reported last night that Angela Browning, the agriculture minister who had been in the thick of the BSE crisis, had said she would oppose any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels, such as the single currency. That view picks up an essential contradiction at the heart of the Conservative manifesto, which says the party would reject any changes "that would further centralise decision-making, [or] reduce national sovereignty" - while keeping open the possibility of joining the single currency.

Labour moved quickly last night to exploit the latest Conservative rift, announcing an impromptu press conference to be held first thing this morning on the Tory "split on economic and monetary union".

In their personal addresses to their voters, other candidates are resolute in their hostility.

Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, who is standing in Burton, says under a headline "No Surrender" that "monetary union poses the gravest threat to Britain's future as a self-governing nation".

Sir Peter Tapsell, the candidate for Louth and Horncastle, says that if the United Kingdom joined up, the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, would become leader of the country.

"I give you this pledge: I shall never vote to join a single European currency," he says.

Labour has already hardened its line on the single currency beyond that of the Conservatives - saying membership is "improbable" in the lifetime of the next Parliament.

Tony Blair will today step up his campaign with publication of a business manifesto. An NOP poll of senior management in overseas companies that have invested in Britain - employing 180,000 people - shows strong support for one of Labour's key manifesto planks; the need for more skills training.

The poll, commissioned by a Labour-supporting businessman, shows one- third of those questioned believing that basic skills in the United Kingdom were lower than in the rest of Europe; only a quarter thought skills were higher than elsewhere in Europe.

Altogether, 48 per cent said that they had a primary or major concern over skill levels, and a further 38 per cent said it was a moderate concern.

A MORI poll for ITN last night showed a deep lack of trust by the electorate on tax, with almost four-fifths believing that taxes would go up whoever won. Two-thirds of those interviewed said they would not trust Mr Major to tell the truth on tax, compared with just under a half not trusting Mr Blair.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister's confidence in his own victory has become total over recent days. A friend said yesterday: "He believes he is coasting to victory. John can already see the champagne glass in his hand on 2 May."

That was reflected last night in a speech he used to attack Labour policy on Europe - at the JCB industrial earth-moving equipment plant in Staffordshire. He said the spirit of Tory activists were up because they had seen the Labour Party "crumble, crumple and crash to the ground under the first bit of real pressure. They're there to be beaten - they're the 'don't knows' of politics".

Urging his audience to seek out undecided voters and win them over to the Tory cause, Mr Major that said in one week Labour had lurched from gaffe, to panic, to chaos.

"Behind the front doors of Britain are millions of people who have yet to make up their minds," he said.

In his speech, Mr Major challenged Mr Blair to commit Labour to putting through legislation before he signed the European social chapter.

"If the measures in the social chapter are good for Britain and those that would follow British signatures on the social chapter," he said, "let Labour argue for them, in detail, in our own Parliament, where they could be amended, added to or subtracted from, not taken in total, without change."

Signing up to the social chapter would hand more power to the unions to pay Mr Blair's IOU to the trade union barons, Mr Major said.