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Clarke insists there is no leadership dispute: Ministers rush to broadcast their support for Prime Minister

KENNETH CLARKE, the Chancellor, insisted yesterday there was 'no dispute' over the Tory party's leadership, as he and other government heavyweights rallied round John Major.

The damage limitation came amid party managers' relief at the exodus of MPs from a febrile Westminster for their Easter break, mixed with the knowledge that with local, European and by-elections to come, a drama had merely been postponed, not concluded.

Ministers seized the opportunity to crowd the airwaves, playing down the Prime Ministerial crisis of confidence among backbenchers in a string of radio and television interviews.

The sharpest remark came from Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In what could be interpreted as a rebuke to potential leadership contenders, he warned of reprisals in the forthcoming elections. 'We all know a party that allows itself to be drawn into speculation about the leadership is not a party that is going to succeed in elections,' he said.

The Chancellor, dismissed the 'extraordinary extraction' from an interview on Wednesday which was interpreted as a message that he would not allow Michael Heseltine a free run at the leadership.

'No dispute over the leadership will take place,' Mr Clarke told a Conservative Central Office news conference.

In his previous statements he could not have given 'a more ringing declaration' of his confidence that Mr Major was, and would continue to be, firmly in charge of events, he insisted.

In contrast to the two Tory backbenchers who have openly called for Mr Major to stand down, Teddy Taylor, the arch anti-European MP for Southend East, urged that leadership contest threats should be called off.

He said in a constituency speech: 'It wouldn't help at all to replace John Major with one of the clowns who agreed to the strategy on majority voting and then agreed to the outcome.

'John Major has the asset of being honourable and decent, which is a rare asset in politics these days.'

Speaking at the launch of his book, Europe: The Europe We Need, Sir Leon Brittan, the British EU Commissioner, said he believed Britain had not been damaged by its unsuccessful stand over qualified majority voting (QMV).

He said: 'A compromise was reached. Every country is entitled to put forward arguments for its view. The damage is only done if you don't reach a compromise.'

Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, declared that the entire Cabinet backed Mr Major, while Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said: 'It's damaging for about 48 hours. We get these bouts of fever and they subside.'

But if not before, the fever is likely to break out afresh when the Tories receive the expected drubbing in the 9 June European Parliament elections.

In an effort to focus minds on the task of fighting these contests, Mr Hurd has written to all MPs and ministers saying: 'I feel strongly that the time has now come to raise our sights to the campaign for the European Parliament elections in June.

'The contrast has to be made clear between our vision of a decentralised, free-trading Europe built on the nation states, and the centralised, interventionist, bureaucratic superstate after which the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats hanker.'

Mr Hurd said Labour had signed up to a European Parliament declaration calling for QMV to be extended to all significant policy areas, while the Liberal Democrats believed the national veto should be given up.

'Our party is the only one clearly committed to the preservation of the British veto where that is required. You should make no bones about this in your campaign.'