Right-wing opponents of the European Union are mobilising for a drive to persuade John Major to underpin Britain's opposition to further European integration by holding out the threat to go to the country on an anti-federalist platform.
Mr Major's aides yesterday dismissed as 'total rubbish' a report suggesting the Prime Minister would be prepared to treat the next general election as a referendum on pulling out of the EU.
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, will tonight seek to bring the Tory campaign for the 9 June European Parliament elections firmly back on track with a keynote speech in the West Country which will fiercely denounce the Opposition - and especially the Liberal Democrats - for yielding to creeping centralism. However, Mr Hurd will also firmly dismiss the ferment in Westminster and emphasise there is no alternative to Europe.
Some of Mr Major's Cabinet colleagues are urging him to make it clear well in advance of the 1996 inter-governmental conference (IGC) on the EU's future that he would be prepared to countenance a two- or three-speed Europe rather than agree to further 'deepening' or centralisation.
Right-wing rebels have privately canvassed options in the event of an IGC breakdown - ranging from use of the veto and a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU to pulling out altogether.
Edward Leigh, sacked as a junior minister last year, said on BBC radio: 'The other parties are pro-federalist so you go into that conference . . . saying we will not put up with any further intrusion into our national life. If we fail to get that we say, you go ahead, but we will have a referendum. That is quite a popular policy.'
Mr Hurd held a private meeting of
40 MPs last week, attended - unusually - by both Hugh Dykes, a leading pro-European, and Bill Cash from the anti-Europe right. Both Mr Hurd and Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, urged the MPs not to 'pick at the sores' of Maastricht and to unite for the election campaign. The anti-Europeans said up to 200 Tory MPs now supported their view.
The Conservative manifesto for the European elections is being redrafted under Sarah Hogg, head of the Prime Minister's policy unit. Party sources said the the draft passed to the Downing Street by the Foreign Secretary was 'elegant' but lacked the fighting spirit needed to galvanise party workers. 'It is being polished, but the content is not being changed,' said a party spokesman.
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