Pressing home the advantage which the party's right wing believes it has gained after Britain's tough stand at the EU's Corfu summit, Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, pushed forward the neo-Thatcherite agenda yesterday by calling pointedly for recognition that 'there is a world beyond Europe'.
Leaving MPs in no doubt of his determination to continue vetoing the candidacy of Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Premier, a confident and unrepentant Mr Major declared to the delight of Eurosceptics: 'Being a good European does not mean signing up to everything which our partners propose.'
Amid growing signs that Germany will drop its backing for Mr Dehaene's candidacy, Mr Major called for a new slate of candidates to succeed Jacques Delors as commission president. He maintained that there were 'a number of well-qualified people who could take on this post on the basis of a genuinely common accord'.
But he also moved to reassure backbenchers that the next commission president would wield less power than Mr Delors. 'The changing nature and enlargement of the community make it extremely unlikely that anyone will exercise that authority again,' he added.
Implicitly criticising both Paris and Bonn for their failure to consult other governments on their choice of Mr Dehaene, the Prime Minister disclosed that as soon as the Government had heard he was a candidate it had 'privately informed' the Belgian and other governments that it could not accept him. 'Neither then nor at any later stage' had 'any partner' said that Britain's first and second choice candidates, Sir Leon Brittan, and Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Premier, were unacceptable.
British officials underpinned Mr Major's Commons statement by pointing out that Germany's Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had not pressed Mr Dehaene's candidacy when he met Mr Major in London at the end of April. The Prime Minister, by contrast, had made no secret of his preference for Sir Leon. The sharpest note of Commons dissent was sounded by Sir Edward Heath yesterday. Airing the anxiety over the weekend's events among strongly pro-European MPs, he said the fact that Mr Major felt he had to use the veto was a 'matter for regret and not for rejoicing'.
But in a sign of renewed self-confidence on the right wing of the Cabinet, Mr Portillo returned to his theme of a 'decentralised, non-interventionist, free trading' Europe, in a speech to Barcelona businessmen. More notably still, he went further than before in questioning whether even the limited objective - widely accepted by mainstream Conservatives - of a single market required the current level of regulations to enforce it.
Mr Portillo ridiculed calls for Britain to be in the European 'fast lane': 'It suggests that speed is more important than direction, that being in a crowd is more important than being in the right place . . . What if the fast lane leads to the wrong destination?'
Despite a show of continued support for Mr Dehaene in Paris by the French and German foreign ministers, diplomats in Brussels said both Paris and Bonn would back away from Mr Dehaene. 'The dust has to settle a little,' said one official. 'Dehaene is no longer viable, and they know it.'
The successful candidate is still likely to be a centre-right politician from a small country, probably Belgium or the Netherlands. But several diplomats said Peter Sutherland, a former Irish commissioner, could not be completely ruled out.
Portillo speech, page 6
Search for a candidate, page 8
Andrew Marr, page 19