Election '97 : Tory Emu policy now in shambles

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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday changed his position on the single currency so quickly that Michael Heseltine was unable to keep track. At one point yesterday evening, the Deputy Prime Minister angrily accused a BBC interviewer of gross distortion when she asked him about the latest, actual twist in the Prime Minister's thinking.

After Mr Major had announced that Tory MPs would be let off the leash with a Commons free vote on any future decision to go into a European single currency, Tony Blair derided the peace offering to a party "in a state of civil war". He said: "There are two Tory parties, and Mr Major appears to be in charge of neither of them."

The Labour leader writes in today's Independent that Mr Major is making policy up as he goes along. "A free vote on the issue of monetary union amounts to a government admission that they cannot agree amongst themselves."

He says that voters have no idea which of the two Conservative parties would make the decisions, if Mr Major was re-elected. "Will it be the party of Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine, or that of John Redwood and Michael Portillo?"

The Prime Minister earlier opened another astonishing day of dramatic developments on his party's European policy by slipping out a hint that Conservative backbenchers might be given the Commons free vote on the question of single currency membership.

Answering a question at his morning press conference, Mr Major said that while such decisions were taken at the time, "on constitutional matters I don't rule out the question of a free vote amongst backbenchers in the House of Commons."

That hint of a free vote was promptly welcomed by Euro-sceptics and pro- Europeans alike. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, told BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme: "I think it will help address the present difficulty."

The "difficulty", he explained, was that MPs were pre-judging the issue, when the decision should be taken once the terms of entry had been negotiated - the Cabinet line that has been defied by ministers and candidates all week.

Mr Clarke revealed that he had not been consulted by Mr Major on the latest development of policy. "But that's because I've been out in the West Country," he said.

But that illustration of government decision-making was later capped by a row between Mr Heseltine and Charlie Lee-Potter, his interviewer, on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme.

She wanted to ask Mr Heseltine about the free-vote, but unfortunately she based her questions on the Prime Minister's latest statement - in which he had hardened up the press conference hint into a firm policy statement.

After a visit to Ellesmere Port, in the Wirral, Mr Major said: "It would be rather odd, would it not, to say you are going to have a referendum of every adult in the country, but then say backbench MPs are going to be dragooned in a particular way. So clearly the same principle must apply to them."

But Mr Heseltine was unaware of that critical, further change in government policy, and he roundly berated Ms Lee-Potter for "misquoting", "grossly distorting" and "exaggerating" what the Prime Minister had said.

The live broadcast caused some embarrassment at Conservative Central office last night. But officials emphasised that there was no disagreement between Mr Major and Mr Heseltine on the policy.