Brian Mawhinney, the Tory chairman, explicitly promised for the first time that the Government would not hold a referendum on European issues wider than the single currency, in a clear effort to reduce the risks of a Cabinet split.
Amid speculation that Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, might be prepared to quit the Cabinet if it votes for a single-currency referendum, Dr Mawhinney moved to erase any suspicion that ministers were seeking to appease Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party. He led a ministerial effort to ensure the looming Cabinet showdown on the referendum issue did not lead to Mr Clarke's resignation by making it clear that any referendum pledged by the Government would be limited to the circumstances of a Cabinet decision to enter a single currency.
This went some way to meeting one objection to a referendum promised being canvassed by some pro-European MPs yesterday - that it could be the first stage of a "slippery slope" to other concessions to the Euro- sceptic right, including other referendums and possibly a commitment not to join a single currency in the next parliament. In terms which fell short of an explicit and formal denial that he could yet see the single currency referendum issue as a resigning matter, the Chancellor reacted to reports that he might resign by saying that he had spoken to no journalists- "nor had any friends."
Some allies of Mr Clarke argued yesterday that the Chancellor was not isolated on the issue and that Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, agreed with his objections to promising a referendum, though it was far from clear how far he is prepared to push his opposition.
Meanwhile, the party chairman told Westminster reporters in a clear rebuff to the demands of Sir James for a comprehensive referendum on Europe before or at the time of the general election that the "Conservative Party would not change its views on these matters as a result of the intervention of any fringe party."
He said the Maastricht Treaty, which Sir James wants to be an issue in the referendum he is seeking, had been ratified three years ago after a "full and intensive" debate.
He added: "There is no case for reopening the debates on Maastricht. It is a settled matter. There will be no referendum on it."
He also ruled out any referendum on the conclusions of the forthcoming intergovernmental conference on the EU on the grounds Britain would oppose any significant constitutional change at the conference.
Instead, in a speech cleared in advance by senior ministers including Mr Clarke, he repeated that the Cabinet was "considering the circumstances in which a referendum might or might not be appropriate."
Earlier Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, who also opposes a referendum commitment, said he was confident Mr Clarke would not resign on the issue.Reuse content