Clarke unites with Portillo to woo rebels

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The two wings of John Major's Cabinet yesterday leant over backwards to tempt the nine Conservative Euro-rebels to return to the fold, with Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, coming as close as he yet has to sounding like a Euro-sceptic.

The Chancellor, a single- currency supporter, went out of his way to say he could envisage circumstances where he would oppose one, adding it was a matter that "may or may not be an issue by the end of the century. All I want to see is it kept open. If it looks a good idea to the British parliament, fine, if it doesn't look a good idea, we say no."

Despite the Prime Minister having hardened his line on Europe in recent weeks, Mr Clarke, interviewed on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost, insisted Mr Major's views were "indistinguishable" from his, and said of the rebels that "what has become clear in recent weeks is when you look at European policy and other policies as well, there is no sensible reason for our being apart".

The Chancellor's performance avoided conceding any of his pro-European views as he insisted Europe did not pose a threat to Britain's sovereignty and way of life. He rejected the view that his party had shifted towards the Euro-sceptic view of Michael Portillo and described himself as a "Euro-realist" rather than Euro-sceptic.

But his tone was notably emollient and he combined that with a personal appeal to Sir Teddy Taylor, with whom he has been in Parliament since 1970. "For Lord's sakes, here we are all these years later when the issue of whether we are in Europe is long ago settled. Teddy, why can't you and I be in the same party again?", adding: "I look forward to him taking the whip again."

Mr Clarke's appeal was matched by one from Mr Portillo, who said the rebels were "very serious and dedicated Conservatives, and I think that the most natural thing in the world would be for them to take the whip again".

Mr Major had stated he would block any move towards political union at the 1996 summit and would not then recommend a single currency to Parliament in 1996 or 1997, Mr Portillo said. Those were points on which the whipless MPs had wanted reassurance.

Neither appeal, however, appeared to have gone far enough for the rebels, who last week issued their "mission statement," arguing for Britain to pull out of the common agriculture and fisheries policy.

Sir Teddy said what was needed, was for the Government "to move that little bit further" and state that 1996 would be about "repatriating" some powers from Brussels.

In every major European negotiation so far, he said, powers had "gone the other way". An insistence that some should come back would offer the electorate a real choice at the general election. "If we go the Clarke way, there's not going to be much point in voting at the next election, because whoever you vote for, the same things will happen."

Once the Government had agreed in principle, it could work out which powers should be repatriated, he said. He and his colleagues did not expect every item in their "mission statement" to be met.

On a return, he said they had formally to be invited to take the whip "and that hasn't happened".