John Major is said to have criticised Central Office at a dinner given by pro-European Tory MPs for the Prime Minister at the Athenaeum Club, in London.
It was supposed to be entirely off the record, and the Prime Minister was said to have been in a very relaxed mood. But The Independent has learned that Mr Major's remarks were seen as clear criticism of Central Office. "He said Central Office was hopeless," one source said. "He said it three times, and really emphasised the point." Other sources who were there disputed that version of events. "He didn't use the word `hopeless'. He said that we should not worry - he didn't accept everything that came out of Central Office. We inferred he was criticising Central Office."
The MPs who attended the dinner on Monday night were united in saying that the Prime Minister gave a clear message that he will resist pressure - which is expected to intensify - that he should rule out any prospect of Britain joining the first wave of a single currency.
There has been tension throughout the summer between Downing Street and Central Office over the handling of the European issue until the highly successful party conference, when a show of unity by the Cabinet over Europe was staged by Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman. That was intended to end the open disputes in the party over Europe and focus attention on winning the election. Dr Mawhinney won Mr Major's praise for the skill with which he mounted the conference.
But the disclosure that pro-European Tory MPs remain worried about the influence of Central Office underlines the fragility of the unity in the party over the single currency.
Tory Euro-sceptics are pressing for the Government to rule out entry into a first wave of a single currency before the general election on the ground that Germany and France are "fudging" the convergence criteria for entry.
Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, yesterday said in London that the Dublin summit in December would stick to the timetable for a second Exchange Rate Mechanism, before the single currency, which could increase the pressure by the Euro-sceptics for Britain to slow the move to Economic and Monetary Union.
The pro-Europe Tory MPs privately feared that Central Office would be driven by opinion poll evidence to suggest a more Euro-sceptic stance would win more votes, and outflank Tony Blair's Labour Party at the election.
They used their dinner to seek a cast-iron reassurance from the Prime Minister that in the run-up to the general election, Mr Major would not allow the Government to close off Britain's option to join a single currency. "We strongly welcomed what he had to say on that. He was very firm. There will be absolutely no shift from our position."
48-hour promise, page 6Reuse content