Portillo's unity call isolates Euro-sceptics

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Michael Portillo yesterday closed Cabinet ranks against Tory rebels calling for a change of policy on the European single currency, and won a standing ovation with a call for "unity, unity, unity".

The Secretary of State for Defence's "comeback" speech marked his rehabilitation as one of the leading right-wing candidates for the Tory leadership and sent a clear message to his Euro-sceptic supporters to end the public splits over Europe.

"One thing that has always marked the Conservative Party apart is its will to govern and its determination to win. But I tell this conference: in order to win we need three extra policies - unity, unity, unity."

Mr Portillo became the third Euro-sceptic Cabinet minister in two days, following Michael Howard and Peter Lilley, to call for unity behind John Major's "wait and see" approach, isolating those outside the Government, including John Redwood, who want to rule out Britain's entry into a single European currency.

Sources close to Mr Portillo told The Independent the Defence Secretary has privately warned Euro-sceptics on the backbench that they risk losing the election by causing divisions in the party, and being blamed for a general election defeat.

"He has told the Euro-sceptics that John Major will not change the policy, and they would be better off attacking Labour," said one close friend.

Mr Portillo's call for unity produced the loudest cheers for his speech in the defence debate. His supporters said his performance had repaired the damage to his reputation caused last year at the conference when he invoked the SAS to show his own strength as Defence Secretary.

Doubts were raised about his judgement after last year's speech, and he was eclipsed on the Euro-sceptic right by Mr Redwood, but his supporters said his performance yesterday had recaptured his reputation as Margaret Thatcher's natural long-term successor.

"Margaret Thatcher set the tone for the week, and the Euro-sceptics are rallying behind. Michael's speech was serious, and brilliant."

of Baroness Thatcher.