John Major yesterday bowed unexpectedly to Euro-sceptic pressure by ordering a White Paper on European policy as he and party managers moved to defuse a fresh bout of speculation about his leadership.
In a move which took senior Tories by surprise, Mr Major ignored calls from the Tory left not to risk re-opening the debate on Europe by securing Cabinet agreement to a White Paper before the intergovernmental conference (IGC) on the European Union's future begins on 29 March.
The White Paper was announced as Mr Major dismissed as "silly speculation" a fresh spate of reports suggesting that he could face a plot to unseat him after the losses of up to 800 out of more than 1,000 contested council seats which the party fears in the May local elections.
The Prime Minister yesterday visited the Commons tea-room after telling MPs: "We have have this silly speculation almost every week there's a Thursday in. It's been nonsense in the past and it's nonsense now." According to one MP, a relaxed Mr Major suggested that he knew who had planted the story and implied it was a backbench figure in the Lords rather than the Commons.
Even some Tory opponents of Mr Major, who will today devote a big speech to the Tories' commitment to "Enterprise", doubted whether a such a plot was feasible, let alone capable of success. Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the 1922 Committee, took the unusual step of issuing a statement saying the reports were "ludicrous" and the "figment of someone's imagination."
As the former Tory chairman Sir Norman Fowler also rejected the reports outright - while acknowledging that there was a "maverick minority" who might want to unseat Mr Major - it emerged that some senior Tory MPs are determined to resist aspirations by constituency parties to be given a formal voice in choosing future party leaders.
The issue has taken on a new importance because of signs that the executive of the 1922 Committee are reluctant to decide radical changes to the leadership rules which could constitutionally preclude a further leadership challenge to Mr Major before the general election.
Lord Feldman, chairman of the party's National Union - the Tory voluntary wing - has floated the idea (at a meeting last summer with 1922 Committee leaders) that the constituency party membership - who have expressed solid support for Mr Major in the most recent soundings taken during the party's consultation exercise - should eventually have a formal say.
But one senior backbench figure on the right said MPs would resist any attempt to dilute their exclusive rights to pick the party leader and added: "That's why we are against a wide-ranging review of the rules which could open that whole issue up."
But amid a warm welcome for the one-quarter of a per cent fall in interest rates - and among the right, at least, for the White Paper announcement - a series of senior party figures queued up to dismiss suggestions that Mr Major would be forced out in the wake of the elections, much less walk out voluntarily having successfully gambled his leadership last summer.
While one former member of John Redwood's summer leadership campaign suggested that Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, should replace Mr Major in a bloodless coup, appointing Mr Redwood and Michael Portillo as senior ministers, another said wearily: "I've seen it all before. Nothing's going to happen.They had their chance in the summer."
The promised White Paper, Whitehall sources emphasised, would not lay out the final negotiating position of Mr Major's government during the IGC, which opens in Turin in March. But it will rehearse positions already made public - such as the Government's outright opposition to any extension of qualified majority voting in the EU, and the refusal of any "major new powers" for the European Parliament. It nevertheless raises the possibility of another difficult Commons vote if Labour seeks to amend any "take note" motion when the White Paper is published.
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