Hague plans party vote on euro to foil rebels

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WILLIAM HAGUE is planning to announce a snap referendum of all Conservative party members on the European single currency if Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke attempt to hijack the Tory conference.

Senior Conservatives say it is increasingly likely that he will throw down the gauntlet to his former Cabinet colleagues over his policy on Europe at the annual gathering next month. He is determined that the event should not be overshadowed by in-fighting and believes that balloting the grassroots activists is the only way to draw a line under the issue.

Although insiders stress that no final decision has been taken, Mr Hague is now virtually convinced that he should use one of his two conference speeches to announce the referendum to divert attention from the rebels. Tory strategists believe that the former deputy prime minister and the former chancellor are coming to the conference "to make trouble" and will seize the headlines unless the party leader takes decisive action.

Mr Heseltine has already written to all constituency chairmen, inviting them to a series of fringe events organised by the pro-EMU group Conservative Mainstream, which is backed by Mr Clarke and Stephen Dorrell, the former secretary of state for health.

Mr Hague's allies fear that their real aim is not to change the policy on Europe, but to undermine the leader's position. "If they're going to hijack the conference and emphasise splits on Europe, then everyone is going to turn round to William Hague and say `What are you going to do about it?'," one adviser said. "There's only one thing he can do to draw it to a close, which is to let the members have their say."

Senior Tories are confident that a majority of the members would show their loyalty to the party leader and support his policy of ruling out British membership of EMU for this Parliament and the next.

Members of the Shadow Cabinet are also convinced that the war must be brought to an end before next year's European elections. The poll was promised as part of Mr Hague's reforms of the party, designed to introduce more democracy into its structures.

At the same time, the Tory leader is planning to publish a "statement of principle" on Europe, in a further attempt to draw a line under the issue. To be included in the conference programme, it has been written by a committee chaired by Michael Howard, the Eurosceptic shadow Foreign Secretary but including leading pro-Europeans such as Edward Macmillan- Scott, the head of the Tories in the European Parliament.

The statement will be conciliatory in parts, emphasising the importance of Britain's relations with other European countries. However, it will make clear that Mr Hague has no intention of compromise by reiterating the agreed Shadow Cabinet policy on the single currency. It also speaks of the importance of "broadening, not deepening" the EU - a reference to enlargement.

The document will form the basis for discussion in a 90-minute debate on Europe, which is certain to be one of the most highly charged moments in the conference. Mr Hague hopes that this will force the rebels out into the open and get them to put their views across in the main hall rather than at fringe events.