Pro-Europe group set for battle

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TORY MPs belonging to the Positive Europe group have called a meeting at Westminster next week to discuss its strategy for dealing with the ascendancy of Euro-sceptics.

Some warned that the anger of the pro-European Tory MPs could be held back, but only until after the European elections. They denied they were the new 'Euro-bastards', but their patience is growing thin.

Some are threatening to break cover if the Tory manifesto for the European elections is Euro-sceptic in tone.

'Euro-enthusiasts' angrily accused Michael Portillo of mounting a leadership bid with his own agenda on Europe. Officers of the group privately demanded a firm rebuke from John Major. 'If he doesn't stop Portillo now, his leadership is finished,' a senior member said. One ministerial source said: 'Every time he fails to slap them down, he lets the Euro-sceptics move a step further.'

They rejected the Euro-sceptics' allegation that pro-Europeans are now a tiny party minority and had become a mirror image of 'bastards' who opposed Maastricht.

The only member of the group to attack Mr Portillo publicly was Hugh Dykes, who accused him of breaching policy by openly opposing a single European currency.

The group claims the support of about 80 Tory MPs. None of its leaders is a natural trouble-maker. They include Ray Whitney, a former minister; Ian Taylor, parliamentary aide to William Waldegrave; Emma Nicholson, another parliamentary aide; Ralph Howell, a senior backbencher; and Jacqui Lait, MP for Hastings.

Backbench supporters include party stalwarts such as Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, an officer of the 1922 Committee, Tom King, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Graham Bright, the Prime Minister's Parliamentary aide. Other founding members have been promoted by Mr Major as ministers, including Michael Ancram and Sir John Wheeler, both Northern Ireland ministers.

The most ardent pro-Europeans - Mr Dykes, David Madel, David Knox and Robert Hicks - are also members of Nick's Diner, the wets' dining club. Some privately admit their problem is that they are seen as 'wet' and unlikely to cause the difficulty for Mr Major that the anti-Maastricht 'bastards' did. But if they sense they are losing the battle for Europe, that will be the point at which the pro-Europeans adopt the tactics of the 'bastards'.