The fierce Tory divisions over Europe, which have overshadowed the election campaign, were exposed by repeated demands for a tougher line with the EU and a warning from the Euro-sceptic Nicholas Budgen that the Commons might not approve measures to kill "healthy cattle" to appease European consumers.
The deep unease that has been simmering over the European Union's role in the beef crisis surfaced as Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, repeated he was sympathetic to a single currency and was accused by Euro-sceptics of contradicting John Major by telling a Commons select committee that British EMU membership would not have "enormous" constitutional implications.
But as Cabinet ministers dismissed as "absurd" the idea of a leadership crisis, Mr Major underlined his determination to stay in office, whatever the outcome of tonight's results, by declaring he was determined to go speaking as Prime Minister "for the national interest whatever the noises-off may be, and from wherever the noises-off may come".
He warned he would not be "pushed from one edge to the other" in a debate on Europe. "I am a Conservative because I believe in Conservatism and I take the middle-of-the-road view on European matters." He believed "our national interest requires us to be in Europe, not to take an extreme view, anti-European, or fanatically pro- European".
The eve of poll was enlivened by a suggestion from the whipless Tory MP, Peter Thurnham, that his constituents should vote Liberal Democrat, and by a promise from the former minister, John Redwood, that he had no intention of challenging Mr Major again for the leadership.
Mr Redwood has sabotaged any prospect of Michael Heseltine succeeding Mr Major in a "bloodless coup" by making it clear he would run against the Deputy Prime Minister if there was a vacancy for the leadership.
Amid complaints that the EU was imposing the ban for "political" reasons, John Townend, chairman of the right-wing 92 Group, urged retaliatory action unless the ban was lifted in a few weeks.
While Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, bore the brunt of the complaints, the populist Euro-sceptic, Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, rejected a European Commission request to fly the European Flag and distribute EU literature to Scottish schools on Europe Day on 9 May in protest at the beef ban.
Cabinet tensions over the issue were fuelled by a leaked letter from Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, to Mr Major, protesting about the disarray caused by Mr Heseltine's retreat last week from the confrontation with Britain's EU partners.
Mr Rifkind had followed an agreed line by raising expectations of tough action when he warned that the Government was considering "other options" after failing to secure a lifting of the ban at a crisis meeting of EU foreign ministers, only to find himself beached when Mr Heseltine ruled out "semi- macho" retaliatory measures.
Mr Rifkind last night argued in a speech on Europe that EU enlargement rendered talk of a European "superstate" obsolete, while urging the EU to put "its house in order". It was "foolish", he said, to posit a romanticised alternative" for Britain outside the EU.
Mr Clarke went further. "The theory that EMU inevitably leads to some super state is a myth," he said. "The central judgement you are making is whether member states would benefit from having a common monetary policy. I can conceive of circumstances where that would be of benefit to the UK."
Beef cull starts, page 2
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