Major drawn into Portillo row

Europe debate: Euro-sceptics back Defence Secretary as fall-out over speech worsens
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Chief Political Correspondent

The row intensified yesterday over Michael Portillo's tirade against Brussels as sources close to the Secretary of State for Defence confirmed that the Prime Minister had seen a text of the speech before it was delivered in Blackpool.

Some senior party officials sought to distance John Major from the damage caused by Mr Portillo's speech by suggesting that he had approved the policy without seeing the text. But asked whether Mr Major had seen the text, a Portillo source said: "Of course."

Such confirmation will embarrass the Prime Minister, and will lead to questions in the Commons next week over whether he approves of the line adopted by Mr Portillo. Some Cabinet colleagues are uncomfortable with the anti-Brussels tone and are looking to Mr Major to seek to repair some of the damage in his speech today.

John Redwood dismissed his comments as "rabble-rousing remarks" and said they did not represent a serious statement on defence policy, while the former minister Robert Jackson accused Mr Portillo of attempting to provoke anti-EU attitudes.

Mr Redwood, former Secretary of State for Wales and another leading light on the right, told the BBC Conference Live programme: "Maybe his remarks were taken a bit too seriously. There was some knockabout which got a very good response on the day on the conference floor. They were light- hearted remarks, rabble- rousing remarks, which worked on the day. Michael Portillo must make his own statements in his own way ... I'm sure his next speech in the Commons will be a serious statement on defence policy."

Mr Jackson, a former education minister, said Mr Portillo risked "vulgarising" the argument over a single European army.

"I have a lot of time for Michael Portillo, but I think he's got to watch out. He's made a series of speeches in which he has gone a little too far. It's very important if we are going to maintain unity ... that we don't have excessive, over-the-top performances like this."

A senior official from the European Commission sent a fax to the BBC accusing Mr Portillo of "Brussels-bashing" and questioning whether the Tories could lose the election over the anti-European tone adopted by Mr Portillo.

Peter Guilford, a senior spokesman for the commission, sent the fax to the BBC to put a question in a phone-in to Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister. Some senior Tories last night reacted with anger that a civil servant from Brussels should have intervened in British politics.