Major prepares to launch spring offensive

John Major will launch the Conservatives' spring offensive next week with his first Downing Street press conference since June 1995.

His appearance will follow a major television interview and a new poster campaign against Labour, and will mark the start of the run-up to the general election.

The last time the Prime Minister gave such a press conference, it was to announce that he was resigning and it sparked a campaign for the party leadership. This time, with tension mounting over Europe and with speculation about who may lead his party after the election, the initiative will be designed to reassert Mr Major's authority.

However, the Prime Minister's stubbornly pro-European Chancellor appeared increasingly isolated last night as his cabinet colleagues backed calls from the Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, for a renegotiation of Britain's position.

Kenneth Clarke had insisted that the Government's "wait- and-see" policy on the single European currency should not change before the election, but other ministers appeared to be trying to manoeuvre him into accepting a more Euro-sceptic stance.

Remarks by Mr Dorrell that the European Union should "put the economic horse back in front of the political cart" had been interpreted as a bid for his party's leadership. However, other cabinet ministers appeared to be using the comments in a bid to corner Mr Clarke last night.

While Mr Dorrell did not specifically mention the single currency, backing from the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, and the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, gave heart to the Tory Euro-sceptic wing.

A cabinet meeting last month on the convergence criteria for entering a single currency ended with the policy unchanged, but Mr Clarke is due to present another paper on the subject after Parliament returns from its Christmas break on 13 January

Mr Rifkind insisted that Mr Dorrell, hitherto regarded as a moderate on the European Union, had simply been following the agreed government line when he called for measures to reverse the drift to a "social Europe". However, he had had to telephone Mr Dorrell to check what he was saying, he admitted. "He emphasised that he does not see the European Union purely as a free-trade area. He recognises ... that it has to be more than a free- trade area, but must never become a European state," Mr Rifkind said on Radio 4 yesterday.

Later, Mr Howard said that Mr Dorrell had merely emphasised the key difference between the Tories and Labour on Europe. "We have a distinctive, British, Conservative vision of the kind of Europe that we want to build. He was talking about precisely that vision," he said.

The former Chancellor, Norman Lamont, seized on the opportunity to call for a fundamental rethink of Britain's relationship with the EU.

"There is a fundamental incompatibility between Britain's version of the EU and that of almost every other country in the EU. What Britain needs ... is a completely new relationship with the EU," he said.

Both major parties will begin the new year with advertising campaigns. Yesterday the Tories sent a 1997 "horrorscope" to electors warning them of dire consequences if Labour came to power.