Major avoids fighting rebels

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John Major yesterday set in train an unexpected and co-ordinated Cabinet effort to keep the peace with the hardline Tory rebels despite the MPs' decision to stage yet another revolt and launch their own "manifesto" on Europe.

Instead of hardening their line against the rebels in the face of fresh evidence that they are acting as a "party within a party", several key members of the Government went out of their way to sound conciliatory despite the rebels' latest flouting of party discipline. The Prime Minister appeared to take a relaxed view of yesterday's publication by the rebels of a "mission statement"- fiercely criticial of the European Union - when asked by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, whether there was now an "honestbasis" in which they could have the whip restored. He said:"There are many and varied views on European policy in all parties and right across the country."

Mr Major, who sidestepped a later challenge by Mr Blair to repudiate the rebels by declaring that the Labour leader should try to unify his own backbenchers, added that the policy which he had already "sketched out" on Europe would carry with it "the overwhelming majority of the people in this country".

But despite considerable private dismay in sections of the pro-European wing of the party over the latest antics of the nine MPs who lost the whip in November, other senior ministers went out of their way to make it clear that neither the new "manifesto"nor the third setpiece Commons rebellion within seven weeks had put the rebels beyond the pale.

The rebels' manifesto effectively called for Britain to withdraw from Europe, if Mr Major failed to secure more powers for the Goverment over the the Common Agricultural Policy, and the Common Fisheries Policy. It also demanded a freeze on payments to the EU until the demands were met.

Amid signs of a divided response within the Cabinet. some senior pro-European party figures privately condemned the rebels' demands as "unreal" while John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, warned that the rebels' stance was "undermining notto the Government but to Britain. He added that the rebels had "excluded themselves" from the Tory party by refusing to accept the terms on which Britain was obliged to work with Europe.

But it was learned in Westminster that Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, has adopted a conciliatory tone in several private meetings with individual rebels since they lost the whip. And Jonathan Aitken, an "inside right" Eurosceptic and Chief Secretaryto the Treasury, insisted that he saw some "bridge building" in the statement produced by the eight rebels yesterday.

Amid continued questioning of the fisheries concessions made by the Government to secure support of the Ulster Unionists on Wednesday night, Michael Ancram, Northern Ireland minister, admitted for the first time yesterday that proposed new cross-border bodies would have "some" executive powers.

While the ackowledgement will be seen by Unionists as vindicating their unease about the forthcoming Anglo-Irish constitutional document, Mr Ancram emphasised that the proposals would be for consultation with all parties. Mr Major went out of his way on Monday to stress that no "joint authority" between Dublin and London would be created by the new bodies.

William Waldegrave, Minister of Agriculture, reassured the Unionists on Wednesday that there would be no cross-border bodies on marine fisheries. Six Ulster Unionist MPs then supported the government in Wednesday's vote.