A referendum of the Conservative Party will be used by William Hague to neutralise the attack on his leadership by the 12 Tory grandees and secure endorsement for his policy ruling out entry to a single currency for a decade.
Dismissing the group, who signed a letter to The Independent opposing Mr Hague's policy on Europe, as Yesterday's Men, Mr Hague said he was confident his party would give him overwhelming backing. He warned the dissidents, who included two former party chairman, an ex-Chancellor and a former foreign secretary, they would have to "lump it".
His uncompromising stand was supported by Michael Portillo, who said: "I am a firm supporter of William Hague's policy on Europe. Those who have signed the letter to The Independent support Mr Blair's policy."
Mr Hague, who is to face Kenneth Clarke and leaders of the Tory Positive European Group in a showdown, said on BBC Radio Five Live: "If the party supports me on this policy - and there is every indication that it will do - then other people will have to like it or lump it.
"Anybody who says to me, `You change your policy or I leave the party' - well the policy will stay the same."
Ian Taylor, who quit Mr Hague's front bench in protest at his harder line on Europe said: "If that makes him feel better, so be it, but it's not the point.
"The point is that 12 of us representing a very great number of people in the Conservative Party want to try to provide moderate advice which should help the Conservative Party regain a degree of stature in the country as a whole."
The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, said: "It is now clear from what Mr Hague is saying that he contemplates a split in the Tory party." Mr Campbell urged disgruntled Tories to join his party.
The Prime Minister's office added fuel to the fire by releasing extracts from an interview with the German ambassador to London, Gebhardt von Molke, welcoming the change of tone by Tony Blair's government. "The Blair government has become a team player on European policy. This will also be documented by the British presidency in the first half of 1998 which will be dominated by EU interests," he said.
Mr Blair will underline the Government's commitment to Europe tomorrow at the launch of Britain's six-month presidency of the EU in London with Commission president, Jacques Santer.
However, Tory activists said Mr Hague had the support of the vast majority of the Tory party. Cafe (Conservatives Against a Federal Europe), is ready to claim its membership has risen by over 1,000 in recent weeks to 4,500.Reuse content