When John met Jimmy

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The Independent Online
When John Redwood met Sir James Goldsmith at London's Dorchester hotel last week it was their second encounter in less than a year. Both had been guests of Lady Thatcher last September at her Chelsea residence when the tycoon was so full of his venture to change British politics that, according to one source, even the former prime minister had difficulty in getting a word in edgeways.

Sir James is the creator of the Referendum Party, which wants a referendum on Britain's future in Europe and he threatens to put up 600 candidates in the next general election. Mr Redwood'spublic visit shows that some leading Conservatives now take the tycoon's agenda seriously.

They have good reasons for doing so. Some Tories reckon that Sir James could lure enough of their natural supporters to cost them as many as 15 marginal seats. Britain's best-selling daily tabloid, the Sun, which not long ago was flirting with Tony Blair, is now playing footsie with Sir James. The Daily Telegraph, under a new editor, has moved to an ultra-sceptic stance; last week, the Daily Express, previously John Major's only steadfast Fleet Street supporter, moved to the same position. And 66 Conservative MPs last week backed a token bill from the sceptic Iain Duncan-Smith to curb the powers of the European Court of Justice.

The EU ban on British beef exports adds to the sense that Euro-scepticism is an attitude whose time has come. The Conservative Party's centre of gravity has shifted and is still moving. Pro-Europeans fear that scepticism is shading into outright opposition. One said last week: "There is no doubt among some of the sceptics, 'withdrawal' from Europe is the term which dare not speak its name." The former Chancellor, Norman Lamont, and the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, have publicly questioned whether a time might come when Britain should think about leaving Europe. Government whips, however, argue that only a small group, perhaps of up to a dozen Conservative MPs, would like to leave the EU.

The more important movement, perhaps, is among the ambitious leftish Cabinet ministers who might one day run for the leadership. Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, backed one sceptic demand - a referendum on a single currency - and was a prime mover behind another - that the Government should publish a paper outlining its stance on this year's EU inter-governmental conference. Last week Mr Rifkind seemed to back suggestions of British reprisals against EU countries, or threats of an "empty chair" at Brussels, over the beef ban.

Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, also surprised many by backing the referendum in Cabinet.

According to one young backbencher, the two ministers have judged the tide of opinion within the party correctly: "We have a sceptic parliamentary party but a Cabinet with several Euro-enthusiasts." After the election the sceptics are expected to increase their grip as older MPs, from the "one-nation" era, retire and their places are taken by those who reached political maturity in the Thatcher years.

Most Conservative MPs expect their party to be in opposition by then. Though leavingthe EU is unlikely to be a policy platform for any leadership contender, opposition to a single currency will. Candidates from the left want the option of saying that they oppose early entry into monetary union.All this heightens the sense of nervousness among Euro-enthusiasts as their main standard-bearer, Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, looks more isolated.