In what could prove the most significant step towards the restoration of the whip to at least some of the eight rebels since they were excluded from the parliamentary party last November, the eight went out of their way to welcome "the new direction" of government policy on the European Union.
In a joint statement, the eight - those who lost the whip apart from Michael Cartiss, who has not attended the rebels' weekly meetings - claimed that "Conservative opinion" on Europe was "moving closer to public opinion, which itself has changed rather dramatically in recent months".
The statement took into account last Thursday's Cabinet meeting at which ministers pledged to seek to claw back some powers from the EU as well as endorsing Mr Major's promise to veto any proposals at next year's inter-governmental conference (IGC) whichcould affect the UK constitution.
But the stand-off between the rebels and the Government is likely to persist for the foreseeable future, not least because the rebels coupled their overture with an express demand for the Government to deliver "a more specific definition of the powers which we believe should be returned to member states . . ." The relative warmth of the Euro-rebels' welcome for Mr Major's recent line will add to the alarm of pro-Europe backbenchers in the party, a delegation of whom are due to press their case for a positive IGC agenda in 1996 at a meeting with Jeremy Hanley, the Tory chairman, today.
The Positive European group, some of whose members have been as disquieted by the apparent shift in the Government's posture as the rebels have been encouraged by it, are drawing up their own proposed programme for the IGC negotiations. Their anxieties will not be allayed by Mr Major's decision to give a keynote speech to the neo-Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group on Friday.
But the pro-Europeans took some encouragement yesterday when Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, said in an interview on BBC Radio's Today programme: "We would be taking the most grave risks if we were to allow those people backing Britain in Europe as inward investors to have doubts about our commitment at the heart of Europe."
While Government business managers extended a heavily guarded welcome to the rebels' statement, the view in Whitehall was that it would be unwise for Mr Major to accede further to the rebels' conditions.
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