Tories leave door open for Europe referendum

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister and Conservative Party leaders yesterday left open the door to a referendum on the future of Europe to try to patch up divisions among ministers before the European elections and to steady John Major's leadership.

Mr Major is expected to signal today at Prime Minister's questions that the Government cannot commit itself at this stage one way or the other over a referendum on the intergovernmental conference on Europe in 1996. At the same time he will resist a referendum on a single currency.

'The Prime Minister is not predisposed towards referendums but the IGC is too far away for the door to be locked and bolted now. The door is being left open,' said a senior party source. That strategy was agreed at a meeting between Mr Major and key party figures, including Sir Norman Fowler, party chairman, to provide a line around which the party can unite for the 9 June elections.

It was calculated to secure the support of some on the party's right-wing who see a referendum on the IGC's outcome as a way to halt any drift towards a federal Europe and as a litmus test of support for Mr Major's leadership. 'It will cement over the cracks,' said one officer of the backbench 1922 Committee.

In a show of unity after the disastrous local elections, the powerful 92 Group of right-wing MPs rebuked John Carlisle, one of its members, for threatening to stand against Mr Major if he would not resign.

However, the party's agreed referendum line was under strain last night. A majority of the Positive Europe Group voiced strong opposition at a private Commons meeting to a referendum on Europe. There was also confusion about the approach to one on a single currency.

The Prime Minister's office emphasised Mr Major remained opposed to a referendum on a European currency, on which he secured an opt- out in the Maastrich treaty. 'We don't want to go into a single currency unless Parliament approves it.'

However, senior party figures said the line adopted at the strategy meeting, leaving open the option of a referendum, also applied to a single currency. 'It is virtually identical to the line that John Smith (the Labour leader) has taken. We were against a referendum on Maastricht but as to the referendum on the IGC, you cannot say now whether there should be a referendum or not. It is the same with a single currency,' said a source.

Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader, opposed a referendum on a single currency but supported one on the IGC outcome. 'We are about to see a re-run of the Tories' Maastricht muddle - a struggling Prime Minister held at club-point by a bunch of Euro-cavemen,' Mr Ashdown told a party meeting in the South-west.

Some key Tories were angry with Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, for appearing at the weekend to reject flatly a referendum on a single currency, while the option was left open by his colleagues, John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales, and Michael Howard, Home Secretary.

Norman Lamont attacked Mr Clarke, but the Chancellor's stand was closer to the Prime Minister's previously stated view. If the Government tries to unite behind a policy of leaving open the option of a currency referendum, it risks having to disown the Chancellor.

It was disclosed yesterday by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, that work is already being done on a common European defence policy. Downing Street said the IGC was so far off to be only 'a twinkle in the eyes of the planners'.

Politics and Policy, page 10

Leading article, page 17

Mark Lawson, page 18

Andrew Marr, page 19

(Photograph omitted)

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