TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Major stands firm on single currency

POLICIES; Patricia Wynn Davies finds the Prime Minister holding his ground in his first interview since resigning as Tory leader
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John Major gave no new ground yesterday on the issue most dividing his party as he insisted that ruling out a single currency now would condemn Britain to "standing on the sidelines of the argument, spitting in the middle".

But he heightened expectations of a referendum when the time for decision on monetary union actually came, saying: "It might be right."

Tory backbenchers - many of them from the right - who have been pressing for help for people with negative equity, were firmly knocked back, however, as Mr Major in effect declared that nothing could be done about the problem.

In his first interview since resigning as party leader, the Prime Minister confined himself to the prediction that even a small group of EU members might fail to reach monetary union on the revised target date of 1999. "What is very apparent is that the original idea - that the whole of the European Union would move to a single currency in 1999 - is not remotely tenable," he told BBC1's On the Record. "There's not a cat in hell's chance that anything like that would remotely happen."

While sounding Euro-sceptical - "I am no federalist" - Mr Major signalled that there had been no change of policy. "What is possible, but no more than possible, is that some members may be in a position to move forward in 1999. Now I am sceptical about that. But what I am being invited to do, step by step, salami slice by salami slice, is step back from a position of influence in determining how the whole of Europe goes forward."

The interview will leave Mr Major as exposed as ever to his Euro-sceptic critics. David Howell, Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said on the same programme that Mr Major must declare against a single currency. "The most succinct answer for the Prime Minister is to say that he would not preside over in the next Parliament any decision to join a single currency."

Mr Major said the decisionwould be "the most important political, economic and potentially constitutional question we have faced for generations . . . if the Cabinet decides to go ahead it will consider whether it should have a referendum . . . do not try and pin us down. We will deal with what is right for the country at the time."

He went on to dispute the recollection of Norman Lamont, the former chancellor and a potential stalking horse challenger, who wrote last week that the Prime Minister wanted to make Britain's membership of the exchange rate mechanism permanent at the time of the Maastricht negotiations. "I am very surprised at what I read and so were other people who saw it," Mr Major said.

The effective ruling out of Treasury help with negative equity - strongly opposed by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor - is not calculated to raise Mr Major's stock with his party's right wing either. The Prime Minister chose to underline the importance of creating low inflation and low interest rate conditions for mortgage payers, who had seen mortgage costs fall by an average of pounds 130 a month.

"Many people wonder precisely what may be done. I don't think those people who themselves have already accepted the loss of negative equity would regard it as fair if we made further action for those who have not, to protect them," he said.

"If you are going to protect people in the housing market from losses, the question arises do you tax them on gains? Of course not, we are not going to tax them on gains. The question of negative equity is one which is easier to state than to see how any government at any time could ever deal with it."