Tory warning against swing to Euro-scepticism

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Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine last night warned the Tory Party chairman, Lord Parkinson, to avoid a swing to the Euro-sceptic right by the Opposition, reports Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent.

Lord Parkinson sought to reassure the high-powered delegation of pro- European MPs that they would still have a voice inside the Tory Party, in spite of the hard-line policy against the single European currency adopted by William Hague.

"Cecil said we were still a broad church, and we had a role to play," said one Tory MP who was at the meeting at Conservative Central Office.

The MPs, members of the Positive European Group, warned against using new electoral rules to pack the places for Conservatives at the European Parliament with Euro-sceptics after elections in 1999. The party chairman is understood to have suggested that the candidates may be chosen by an extension of one-member one-vote democracy inside the Tory Party.

Lord Parkinson also told the MPs that he believed that Tony Blair would call the general election a year early, in 2001. "He said that Margaret [Thatcher] had always got to the end of the fourth year of a Parliament and started planning the election to stop being boxed in. That is what he said Blair would do."

Lord Parkinson told the former Cabinet ministers that the five tests set by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for Britain's entry to the single currency made it less likely that Britain could join. He said it was therefore less likely that Europe should be an issue at the next election.

However, his remarks will not satisfy the Euro-sceptic majority of Tory MPs at Westminster who believe fighting the next election on a platform to "save the pound" would be a potent weapon against Mr Blair.

The pro-European group used the meeting to stake out their position, having forced the leadership into compromises over the way the Opposition voted on the ratification of Mr Blair's negotiations at his first European summit in Amsterdam. The meeting followed a warning last week by John Major to Mr Hague against a lurch to the right.

The former Prime Minister has told friends that he has regained his appetite for politics. "He could become another Alec Douglas Home," said one friend, referring to the former Tory prime minister who went on to become foreign secretary.

Mr Hague yesterday told the Conservative Friends of Israel in London that it was "painful to see my party described as greedy, selfish and lacking in compassion ... we are proud of our record."