Never before in the middle of a general election campaign has a party leader quarrelled so openly with his followers. The nearest parallel is Labour's disastrous 1983 campaign under Michael Foot: and despite the boldness of John Major's full-frontal confrontation with anti-European candidates, yesterday's events probably marked the end of the Tories' dwindling hopes of winning the 1997 election.
Certainly, the rebels ignored him. Shortly after Mr Major had ripped up his planned agenda to plead with Tories who want to rule out a single currency, yet another minister, Eric Forth, broke the agreed line. Senior Tories and candidates from across the country queued up to join the repudiation of the cabinet's carefully agreed ''wait and see'' policy.
Despite the ill-discipline, Mr Major did not sack the rebel ministers - to do so would have brought down the fury of the Conservative press on him and provoked further internal mayhem among the increasingly anti- European Tory activists. But he read his party an unmistakable and remarkably blunt lecture on political common sense.
His own assessment of the balance for and against the currency could not have been more even-handed. If it worked, the single currency could raise living standards across Europe. If it failed it could bring "economic catastrophe across the whole of Europe."
But he concluded his press conference by saying that until the negotiations had been finalised no one could know which way the balance of advantage or disadvantage would lie.
"What I am saying is that they don't know what I am going to negotiate. Nobody does, Nobody does. What I am saying to my colleagues, my Ministers, you in the Press... no one is in any doubt these are the most important negotiations we have. Whether you agree with me or disagree with me; like me or loathe me, don't bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British nation."
Mr Major said he was often urged by critics to rule the whole single currency issue in, or out entirely. He turned sarcastic: "It would be splendidly decisive, they say - so splendidly decisive you would send the British Prime Minister naked into that conference chamber with nothing to negotiate, with nothing to wring the best deal out of our partners.''
Under the circumstances, his conclusion was provocative and brave: "I will negotiate in the interests of the UK as a whole, not in the convenient party political interests of the Conservative Party."
The rebels were unimpressed and unrepentant. John Redwood, the most prominent dissident, said: "I am not going to change my position. I am a consistent man. I have thought it through. On principle I oppose the single currency economically, constitutionally and politically. I do not think it can work."
More damaging, Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, told BBC radio's World at One that he supported the two Ministers who had stepped out of line - John Horam and James Paice. "We are putting a marker down simply to say that we have very strong feelings and we don't want a single currency. We don't want to lose the pound," he said.
As for the two men who had so brazenly broken all the rules of ministerial discipline, Mr Major told his press conference: "I think those two ministers were very unwise. We have spoken to those two ministers overnight. They realise how unwise they were.'' as the full support of the association."
Intruding on the Tories' internal grief, Tony Blair said in a Southampton lecture: "We are witnessing the collapse of the Conservative Party under the weight of its own divisions. We are seeing the culmination of six years of weak leadership, a Prime Minister reduced to a laughing stock by his MPs; his party now a rabble.''
Interviewed later on BBC Radio 5 Live's Ruscoe on Five, the Labour leader said that in some ways he felt sorry for Mr Major. "The difficulty that Mr Major's in is that he's drawn a line in the sand so many times before," Mr Blair said, "then the water sort of laps around his feet, he takes the line back a little bit, and in the end he keeps on doing that until finally the water sort of washes him away."
A fairer assessment might be that the Prime Minister was showing strong leadership yesterday, but too late and with a party no longer willing to be led any nearer to European integration. On one issue, at least, he and the rebels are in full agreement. In his hastily reworked party election broadcast last night, Mr Major said the single currency was of overriding importance: ''there has been no matter like this in peace time, in the living political memory of anyone.''
But what about the rest of the country? Our reporters across the country, from Bristol and the West Country, to Tamworth, Redditch, Birmingham and Stockton, found very few candidates or voters who believed the single currency was high on the agenda. Everywhere, jobs, the health service and education were deemed more important and there was widespread bemusement at the Tory civil war.
A former minister defending a safe Tory seat said that the only people raising Europe were older voters, in their 50s and 60s, who were essentially Euro-sceptic. That was a general impression from a number of former Tory ministers who had spent the day canvassing voters.
In Tamworth, Staffordshire, a pensioner, John Farrington, who is switching from the Conservatives to either the Liberal Democrats or Labour, said Europe would not affect his vote. "I'm more concerned with what happens in this country, about hospitals and benefits."
And one voter in William Waldegrave's Bristol West constituency, Rob, unemployed, who was lounging in the sunshine, said he wished it was all over "so that The Independent can be a good read again."Reuse content