Dorrell: My thought process was blurred

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Indy Politics
The Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, said yesterday that his Sunday gaffe on the single currency had been the result of "cock- up", rather than conspiracy.

But Tory disarray over the single currency will be exploited by Tony Blair in a London business speech tonight, when he will say ministerial conflict is aggravating fears that a fifth term of Conservative government would lead to British withdrawal from the European Union; a "disaster" for jobs and investment.

Mr Dorrell's statement last Sunday, that Britain would not join the single currency at the start of 1999, and that membership would not be possible, was in direct conflict with the Cabinet line. The Cabinet agreed on 23 January that participation in a single currency was highly unlikely but not impossible.

After he was forced to issue a complete retraction of his words on Sunday, Mr Dorrell told The Independent yesterday: "I used the wrong form of words. My thought process was blurred at that particular moment.

"I had the Government line, the truth is I couldn't remember precisely at the right moment precisely what the formula was. And the formula was that there was an extremely small chance of us joining in, say, 1999. And I think the word I actually fumbled during the end was 'vanishingly' small. So, in the end, the difference was between vanishingly small and extremely small."

Many of Mr Dorrell's ministerial and backbench colleagues were incredulous yesterday that he could have made such a mistake, and there remained a suspicion that his formula must have been a deliberate attempt, either to enhance his chances in a leadership contest, or to blur the Government's line in the minds of the electorate.

When those two conspiracy theories were put to Mr Dorrell yesterday, he said: "It's the cock-up theory ... I fumbled my way rather inelegantly to the words vanishingly small."

The minister who had most reason to be distressed by the gaffe, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, yesterday dismissed suggestions that the Government was changing its policy as "froth and nonsense". He also rejected the notion that Mr Dorrell was bidding for the party leadership, by broadening his appeal to Tory Euro-sceptics.

The Chancellor said: "If there is any colleague of mine behaving in that way they must have taken leave of their senses and they ought to be concentrating on getting this party back into office."

He said Mr Dorrell had telephoned him after the broadcast to warn him about the controversy he had created. "We had a very relaxed chat on the telephone," Mr Clarke said. "I cheered him up. He did not tell me he was going to issue a statement, but he has issued a statement saying that he was not changing the policy, that he was agreeing with Cabinet policy, which he quite obviously is."