Major rules out promise of referendum: Prime Minister accused of indecision over Europe. Donald Macintyre reports

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JOHN MAJOR yesterday closed off any possibility of using the Tories' European election manifesto to promise a referendum, with a declaration that the question of holding one did not 'arise now and certainly need not be decided now'.

He sought to reassure restive backbenchers that he would not sign up to integrationist proposals that could emerge when Europe debates its future in 1996. But he reasserted his determination to stay in office with a declaration that he intended to exercise the 'five-year mandate' given him by the general election.

To the relief of pro-Europeans in the Tory party - and the disappointment of some on the right - the Prime Minister said that he was 'sceptical' about referendums and insisted he had not 'changed his mind' since expressing his opposition to them last year.

His refusal to rule one out explicitly drew jibes from both the main opposition parties. Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who are holding out the prospect of a referendum, called him the 'maybe man'. John Smith, the Labour leader, said the Cabinet was 'hopelessly divided' on the issue.

Although right-wingers had pressed - vainly, as it turns out - for the Government to include the referendum proposal in the Euro- manifesto, Mr Smith challenged the Prime Minister to say whether his shift from opposition to scepticism was because he was 'running in front of the Europeans'.

Mr Major's formulation appeared last night to have satisfied both the pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics inside his party.

For more than one prominent MP of the Thatcherite right, there was enough from Mr Major to suggest that the referendum door was not so much ajar as unlocked. Mr Major held consultations with senior Cabinet colleagues before issuing his careful words on referendums. But he appeared to some pro- Europeans to have gone further in their direction in his answers to Sir Terence Higgins, the MP for Worthing.

In a clear side-swipe at calls for a referendum either on the single currency or on the conclusions reached by the EU Inter-Governmental Conference in 1996, Sir Terence said: 'It is absurd for those who argue that the authority of this House is being usurped by Brussels to advocate the use of such a device which would undermine the authority of this House.'

Mr Major declared: 'The points made by you are undeniable and I agree with them.' He said he did not intend to return from the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference with a 'package that this House would find unacceptable'.

The latest ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper reveals that more than half the electorate - 55 per cent - believe John Major should stand down.

Only 26 per cent say they would vote Conservative at a general election. That puts the Tories equal with the Liberal Democrats, with Labour well ahead on 44 per cent. Only 27 per cent of those polled say that they will vote Tory in next month's European elections. The Labour vote is put at 44 per cent with 24 per cent for the Liberal Democrats.

A projection made from the poll results by Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde, forecasts the Conservatives would see their European parliamentary numbers fall to 16.