Sir Leon's departure would trigger a crisis for the Prime Minister, crystallising his problems over Europe. Sir Leon, external trade commissioner and former Cabinet minister, is one of the most prominent Conservative supporters of the EU. The decision to strip Sir Leon of part of his portfolio was made by Jacques Santer, the new president of the commission, despite personal lobbying by Mr Major late last week in an effort to ensure that Sir Leon kept his East European affairs brief.
The Prime Minister telephoned Sir Leon to express solidarity and tell him that he shared his disappointment. He also made clear the importance the British government attaches to Sir Leon staying on.
Sir Leon remains in charge of trade and relations with the US, Japan and other developed countries. But the prize job was given to Hans van den Broek, the Dutch commissioner, leaving Sir Leon bitter and defeated. He said on Saturday he was ``considering the position'' and his officials said he would decide in the next few days whether or not to resign.
If he quits, Britain must nominate another commissioner, who would by tradition be a Tory. This would set the Government the problem of finding a candidate acceptable to the party, which given the Tory split on Europe might not be possible. It is by no means certain that the new nominee would get such a high profile job as trade, which the Government regards as crucial.
There are two versions of why Sir Leon lost. The first is that it resulted from Mr Santer's weakness. On Friday, he told Sir Leon that he could have Eastern Europe but Mr van den Broek ``went ballistic'' and on Saturday Mr Santer changed his mind. The new president tried to avoid making a decision at all, asking the commission to vote on the issue, but was rebuffed.
The second version is that Mr Santer never gave the job to Sir Leon, but offered it to him as one of several package deals if Mr van den Broek accepted. But he refused, which meant the deal was void. Sir Leon boxed himself in by refusing to deal, even when it became clear that he would lose. On this version, Sir Leon misplayed the situation politically.
Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, will be transport commissioner, which will involve co-ordinating multi-billion-pound road and rail networks. Mr Kinnock was supportive of Sir Leon on Saturday, according to those present, and gave a good performance on his first outing.
The Downing Street view on Sir Leon was strongly endorsed by Lord Howe, who said on BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend: ``I can well understand his disappointment at the reduction in his job's scope which has taken place.'' But the former foreign secretary added: ``I hope that he will remain there because he is an invaluable force for good across the whole political agenda.''
However, one of the most prominent of the Tory rebels over the Maastricht treaty, James Cran, said the Santer move was ``a slap in the face to those of us who would like a widened Europe rather than a deepened Europe''.
As the Opposition seized on the snub as evidence of British isolation in Europe, Labour's Pauline Green, the Socialists' leader in the European Parliament, accused Sir Leon of acting ``like a spoilt child''. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats' European spokesman, said the allocation was the result of Tory ``disarray'' on the EU.
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