John Major's warning against Tory party disunity was brushed aside within 24 hours yesterday as party Euro-sceptics vied with Sir Edward Heath and Edwina Currie for support for their respective stands on European Union and a single currency.
The schism was heightened by the release of a survey by the all-party European Movement, which showed that the British public was broadly pro-European but woefully ignorant of the detail.
Mrs Currie, a Movement vice-chairperson, said the stand taken by the sceptics was "wrong for our country and wrong for our party as well". The pro-Europeans intend a vigorous campaign to get across the benefits of EU membership.
Euro-sceptic backbenchers retaliated, while their Cabinet champion, Michael Portillo, renewed his attack on the defector Emma Nicholson, who is another vice- chairperson of the Movement.
The Secretary of State for Defence told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that a campaign had been "whipped up against me" after his criticism of Ms Nicholson. "The fact of the matter is that [she] did show disloyalty to two prime ministers in a row."
About 56 per cent of those who were polled by Gallup for the Movement described their knowledge of the EU as "poor, or very poor", with only 8 per cent claiming it was "good, or very good".
More than half of those polled - 56 per cent again - agreed that there ought to be "closer co-operation between countries of the EU, with Britain playing a leading role". Nineteen per cent disagreed and 23 per cent were neutral.
Sir Edward, the Movement's president, said the poll confirmed that a majority supported the Prime Minister's view "that the United Kingdom should be at the heart of Europe.
"The poll also shows that people in Britain are poorly informed about the choices which lie ahead for Europe, in particular about the question of a single currency."
Of the 805 people questioned, 46 per cent said they had heard more of the arguments against a single currency than the arguments in favour. Only 18 per cent had heard more of a positive case.
But the Tory MP Graham Riddick said the Movement should point out that a single currency would involve the transfer of Britain's foreign reserves to Frankfurt.
"The control of interest rates and tax rates, and indeed economic policy generally, would almost certainly be transferred to the European Central Bank," he told Today.
Barry Legg, another sceptic, said that there were "profound conflicts" between the views of the pro-Europeans and traditional Conservative principles.
"How they can maintain their strong belief in Conservatism and the integrity of the United Kingdom if the UK doesn't have its own currency is difficult to reconcile," he said.Reuse content