Chief Political Correspondent
"One Nation" Tories angered by their party's lurch to the right are planning to launch their own manifesto, keeping the option of Britain joining a single European currency.
The group, which included Emma Nicholson before her defection, has decided it has stayed silent for too long and was infuriated by Michael Portillo's attack on the former Tory MP by saying she was "right" to leave the party, if she believed in a federal Europe.
Some members of the 50-strong group yesterday told government whips, who are checking on the threat of more defections, that Mr Portillo's remarks amounted to an invitation by other left-of-centre Tory MPs to desert.
The counter-attack by the Tory left threatened to plunge John Major into fresh trouble over Europe, as the Ulster Unionists yesterday warned they could vote against the Government on European issues, such as fishing quotas.
Party leader David Trimble warned: "There's no automatic commitment. The Ulster Unionists' position is, and always has been, we look at most issues on their merits ... The impression that we're somehow supporting the present administration is not an accurate one."
The Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad, has been ordered by the Prime Minister to tighten discipline, and improve his early warning system, after being caught out by the defections of Ms Nicholson, and Alan Howarth to Labour.
The Tory high command was dismayed by the Defence Secretary's intervention, which provoked a fresh salvo by Ms Nicholson. "People like Michael Portillo and that clique he heads would have been on the outskirts of the old Conservative Party," she said on BBC. "It is an utter disgrace that somebody so nationalistic, so lacking in historic understanding ... holds that job." Members of the One Nation group said that if she had called for Mr Portillo's resignation from the Cabinet, instead of deserting, they would have supported her.
The Tory MPs, known as the MacLeod group, are planning to publish a pamphlet within the next month, covering the economy, Europe, social policy and the welfare state. It was being kept under wraps for a launch at Westminster to have maximum impact.
"It will be a political bombshell," said one senior member. "It will be a direct riposte to what Portillo is saying about the Tory Party being an anti-European party. For quite a long time, we have allowed the right wing to go unchallenged because we thought it would be bad for the party to speak out. That benign silence which we adopted for two years has failed to work. We decided that it would be a mistake to continue like that."
It will oppose a Tory election manifesto commitment that Britain will not join a single currency within the lifetime of the next Parliament, which has split the Cabinet. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, have persuaded Mr Major not to endorse it, but right wingers led by Mr Portillo and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, are still pressing for it to be included in the manifesto.
The pamphlet, the foreword to which was written by Peter Temple-Morris, who is firmly on the left of the party, will also warn Mr Major against trying to unite the Tories by adopting a referendum on a single currency. It will argue that a referendum would split the party.
Ms Nicholson yesterday said that if more Tory MPs defected and Mr Major lost his overall majority, he should call a general election, and that she would be "perfectly comfortable" to force an election.
Labour promised to force a series of votes at Westminster aimed at embarrassing the Government and to launch a ferocious campaign in advance of the May local elections and the outstanding by-elections, which could cut Mr Major's majority to just three.