The sharp divisions within the Cabinet came to light as Douglas Hurd appeared to face narrowing options for avoiding a choice between confrontation in Europe and a renewal of strife in the Tory party.
The conflicting pressures on the Foreign Secretary were underlined yesterday when Niels Helveg Petersen, the Danish Foreign Minister, said a refusal by Britain to make concessions would mean a 'deeply regrettable' end to EU plans for enlargement. Mr Petersen said on BBC TV's On the Record that Britain should be 'very clear' that there would 'never' be agreement to Britain's proposal to retain within an enlarged Union a blocking minority of only 23 votes in the Council of Ministers.
At the same time, David Evans, a right-wing executive member of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend that most Conservative MPs would not tolerate any weakening of Britain's voting power, even if that jeopardised the planned admission of Finland, Austria, Sweden or Norway.
But Gillian Shephard, the Minister of Agriculture, has been working for compromise, partly on the ground that it would be easier to force through far-reaching reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy if it was harder for opposing countries to assemble a blocking minority.
The Ministry has pointed out in Whitehall that reform of the CAP, which accounts for pounds 28bn a year or 54 per cent of the EC budget, is strongly favoured in principle by the Government. It has further argued that to fix the minority at a higher number of votes - maintaining the proportion that at present applies in the 12-member Union - would help to force through measures, opposed by a loose alliance of Mediterranean countries, to reduce subsidies on rice, sugar, tobacco and olive oil.
Mrs Shephard, who is not normally close to the strong pro-Europeans in the Cabinet,is said to have won support from John Gummer, a pro-European, and, more privately, several other senior ministers.
But in a speech in Birmingham yesterday John Smith, the Labour leader, said: 'The Government's posturing over this issue has nothing to do with Britain's real interests. It is a political manoeuvre to keep the Tory Euro-sceptics happy - at the expense of our relations with our EU partners and of bringing new countries in to form a wider and more prosperous Community.'
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