Tories join battle in a fight for the party's soul

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Leading Tories who yesterday signed the letter to The Independent supporting Tony Blair on Europe are to have a showdown with William Hague. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says it will test the Tories' central faith.

"There is a feeling of frustration, rather than anger," said one ex- minister. "We have been silent too long." The feud in the Tory party over a European single currency is heading for a climax. Kenneth Clarke, a former chancellor, and key officers of the Tory Positive European Group have asked for a meeting with the Conservative Party leader in a desperate attempt to get him to drop his policy of ruling out the single currency for 10 years.

The decision by Chris Patten, a former party chairman, to sign yesterday's letter to The Independent has raised the stakes, and prevented Mr Hague or his allies from dismissing the pro-European group, which includes Michael Heseltine, Lord Howe, and another former party chairman, John Gummer, as a bunch of has-beens.

The letter, signed by a former prime minister, two former deputy prime ministers and six ex-ministers, criticised Mr Hague's wait-for-ten-years policy and pledged support for the Prime Minister's Euro-enthusiasm: "We believe it important that EMU should succeed and for Britain to prepare now to join a successful single currency."

It has also raised the spectre of a leadership challenge to Mr Hague. Although friends of Mr Patten denied that was his intention, it is seen as a marker.

Mr Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, who was made a Companion of Honour by Mr Blair in the New Year's Honours List, has told allies he thinks it is "not tenable" for the Tories to go into the next election refusing to take a view about a decision which is the most important facing Britain and Europe since Bretton Woods.

However, the Euro-sceptics surrounding Mr Hague, including some of his most senior Cabinet colleagues, said last night that he would not change course now, and they expect the Tories to fight the next election on a pledge to save the pound.

"Patten's decision to sign the letter was extraordinary. Anyone who wishes to be the next Tory leader, or Mayor of London and supports the Labour Cabinet's line on the euro would be wise to remember that view is not shared by the majority in the Tory party," said a shadow cabinet source. Another leading Euro-sceptic, Norman Lamont, a former chancellor, told The Independent he did not believe Mr Hague would weaken, and the vast majority of the party supported the Tory leadership line.

"Until today's letter, the 25th anniversary of Britain's going into the EEC has been greeted with an appropriate deafening silence. Perhaps a more suitable way of commemorating it would be to spell out how the British people were misled about the nature and direction of the EU. They will not be easily misled again about the single currency."

Mr Hague, writing in today's Sun, said he would not back down. "The Conservative Party is not going to play Russian roulette with Britain's future. Europe should have higher priorities than rushing into a single currency."

The underlying threat in the letter is that it could lead to a final split in the Tory party. Some MPs have told The Independent they are not ruling out leaving the party under Mr Hague. The Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, has told friends some Tories have put feelers out to his party. The decisive split would almost certainly take place if Mr Blair proposed voting by proportional representation, after a referendum, for Westminster polls.

The showdown with Mr Hague, which is expected to take place soon after the Commons returns from the New Year recess next week, follows a meeting before Christmas between a delegation of Positive European Tories, also led by Mr Clarke, to the party chairman, Lord Parkinson. Some pointed out that the Tories threatened to go into the next election opposed by the CBI and were appalled when Lord Parkinson reportedly said big business was on the wrong side before the Second World War. The former prime minister Sir Edward Heath, another signatory, has told friends he has no intention of leaving the party, but privately believes Mr Hague has gathered around himself too many Euro-sceptics.

The Prime Minister's spokesman, welcoming the support of leading Tories, said the Government's own position on signing up to the euro was coherent and commanded widespread support.