Rebels use Howard to attack Clarke

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Indy Politics
The chronic Tory divisions over Europe were exposed again last night when it emerged that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had met the "whipless rebels" while Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, had refused to do so.

The rebels seized on what they saw as a snub by Mr Clarke after he had rejected a request for a discussion with them over the vexed question of the single currency and whether Britain will rejoin the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

They contrasted Mr Clarke's reply with what they fulsomely depicted as the warm reception they had received from Mr Howard. Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Southend, said that the Home Secretary "couldn't have been more helpful in every possible way. We emerged from the meeting happy and we feel we made real progress".

Mr Howard's decision to see the rebels - which he is believed to have cleared with Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip - is the first formal meeting between the MPs, who lost the whip for rebelling against the Government on a confidence motion in November, and a Cabinet minister. But there have been regular contacts between rebels and ministers on an informal basis.

At the meeting with Mr Howard the rebels pressed their case that the Government's maintenance of British border controls rested on a "declaration" by European Union member states made during Margaret Thatcher's period as Prime Minster which they say has no validity in law.

Mr Clarke said in a letter, sent last Thursday but not released by the rebels until yesterday, that John Major's speech in the Commons on 1 March had set out government policy on monetary union and had settled policy "for this parliament and beyond".

The Chancellor said he "could not and would not want to" amplify the Prime Minister's statement. He added that Mr Major had rightly referred to the enormous gulf between the Government and Labour on Europe, adding: "I think our common priority now must be to devote all our energies to highlighting that gulf."

Mr Howard agreed to send detailed answers to a series of points made by the rebels. including, as the rebels put in a statement yesterday: "What on earth could the Government do if our own courts or a Euro-court stated that our frontier controls were unacceptable and if they declined to agree a Treaty amendment?"

But Sir Teddy could not hide his anger at the Chancellor's refusal to meet them.

"I've been an MP for 31 years and I've never been refused a meeting by any minister, even a Labour minister when there was a Labour government. It seems astonishing at a time when we are trying to find solutions. It just seems staggering he's not willing to have a chat with us. It's very disappointing."