Michael Howard was accused of "panic" yesterday after reshuffling his Shadow Cabinet to sharpen the Tories' appeal on health and education, in the wake of losing out to UKIP in the European elections.
Mr Howard told Tory MPs at a private meeting at the Commons last night that the reshuffle was aimed at shifting the focus to the party's plans for improving public services, including proposals for vouchers to give patients and pupils more choice in health care and education. But there was growing pressure from Eurosceptic MPs and peers for Mr Howard to harden the Tory line on Europe to win back voters who deserted to UKIP before the next general election.
A group of Eurosceptic hardliners met in secret at the Commons before Mr Howard met his backbenchers in a committee room to discuss the European elections. "If it means losing two or three Europhile MPs like Ken Clarke, I won't complain," said one MP who was at the hardliners' meeting.
Lord Tebbit, a former Tory chairman and close ally of Baroness Thatcher, was among those who called on Mr Howard to keep the focus of the Tory campaign for the general election on Europe to win back voters from UKIP.
He told The Independent: "Michael Howard should say that if the French and Germans want to go along with a new EU constitution treaty, they can, but we will not be part of a common foreign policy, single tax system. We want to keep control over our own frontiers, our agriculture, criminal law and go back to a single market."
Tony Blair is expected to use his own press conference today to argue that such a hardline policy would mean a Tory government would have to withdraw from Europe.
Some senior members of the Shadow Cabinet, including Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, have urged the Tory leader since the weekend to hold firm to the policy of staying in the EU. "The UKIP vote will return to us at the general election. We have to stay in Europe. We cannot ape UKIP by talking about pulling out," said one frontbencher.
The Conservative leader surprised his Shadow Cabinet by announcing the snap reshuffle yesterday. Tim Yeo was summoned to Mr Howard's office at the Commons to be told he was being switched from health and education to take over the transport and environment brief from Theresa May. Ms May, who was demoted by Mr Howard from her job as party chairman, was put in charge of family policy. A Shadow Cabinet member said: "Yeo has been told to get a grip on transport policy. We haven't really got one at the moment."
Senior Tories were expecting a reshuffle in late July to coincide with Tony Blair's government reshuffle. But Mr Howard decided last week that it was time for a change, telling friends the Conservatives needed to be 10 points ahead of Labour in the polls.
A source close to Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This is a desperate attempt to divert attention from UKIP."
The changes also amounted to an admission that the radical slimming down of the Shadow Cabinet has not worked. Mr Howard put Mr Yeo in charge of the two big public service portfolios when he won the leadership unopposed. Yesterday, he promoted the Tory health and education spokesmen, Andrew Lansley and Tim Collins, to the Shadow Cabinet.
THE NEW TORY PORTFOLIOS
Michael Howard: Leader of the Opposition
Michael Ancram: International affairs, shadow foreign secretary and deputy leader
Tim Collins: Education
David Davis: Home, constitutional and legal affairs & shadow home secretary
Liam Fox: Co-chairman of the Conservative Party
Andrew Lansley: Health
Oliver Letwin: Economic affairs & shadow chancellor of the exchequer
David Maclean: Chief whip
Theresa May: The family
Lord Saatchi: Co-chairman of the Conservative Party
Caroline Spelman: Local and devolved government affairs
Lord Strathclyde: Leader of the Opposition, House of Lords
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- Michael Howard