As the Conservatives prepared for another rotten week, with opinion polls pointing to a humiliating defeat in the Dudley West by-election on Thursday, Michael Portillo said a referendum could be "a valuable way" to heal the party's "terrible rift" over Europe - the very grounds on which the Prime Minister has said he does not want one. The Secretary of State for Employment stressed that a referendum was not his first choice, prefering the party to unite by taking a Euro-sceptic line. He also warned thatpeople might vote against the Government, rather than answer the question.
But his view that it might prove healing came as David Mellor and Tim Renton, two former Cabinet ministers from the Europhile end of the party, conceded that there could be a referendum. At the same time, Keith Hampson, a key lieutenant to Michael Heseltine and an ardent pro-European, told BBC radio's The World This Weekend that "at some stage we probably will have to put to the British people, for example, a decision to enter a monetary union".
His comments came amid reports that Mr Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke are both still vigorously resisting the idea which, in the main, has been espoused by opponents of a single currency. Mr Hampson said he had not discussed the idea with Mr Heseltine, but"could see their point.
"I can see some members of the Cabinet arguing this will simply run the debate at a more intense level rather than stifle it.'"
"I just feel that probably the momentum has got to the stage where there has to be one."
The momentum for a referendum was increased from Labour's side by Robin Cook, shadow Foreign Secretary, who took his party's position beyond Tony Blair's statement that there is "a strong case" for a referendum on a single currency. Mr Cook told BBC Television's On the Record that "the people must decide".
Whether the decision was taken through a general election, or by a referendum, was something to be considered at the time, he added.
The Conservatives meanwhile were bracing themselves for the loss of Dudley West with two opinion polls showing Labour to have 60 per cent of the vote, and one, for GMTV, showing 53 per cent believing the Prime Minister should step down.
Tony Blair let it be known that he had ordered preparations for a general election to be speeded up, and he will use the Tory turmoil to argue to Labour's national executive on Wednesday that a special conference to re-write Labour's clause IV should nowbe held at the end of April.
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