William Hague is coming under pressure from within his own party to fight the next election on a platform of complete withdrawal from Europe.
The Tory leader is understood to have had talks with Christopher Gill, one of the eight MPs whose opposition to the Maastricht Treaty cost him the party whip during the Major administration. Mr Gill, in a speech to the Eurosceptic Bruges Group, in Kensington, west London, last week, said he has discussed with Mr Hague and 14 members of the Shadow Cabinet the prospect of making withdrawal from Europe official Conservative policy.
A spokesman for the Bruges Group said there had been "huge sympathy" for Mr Gill's position at the meeting, attended by between 80 and 90 Tories. He added that Mr Gill had reported a "fairly favourable" response from the Conservative frontbenchers he had spoken to, and felt there was "potential" for a shift in policy along Eurosceptic lines.
These revelations coincided with the arrival in Britain of a team of officials from the United States International Trade Commission to carry out an investigation in Britain on behalf of the US Senate on whether Britain could join the North American Free Trade Area (Nafta).
A group of senior Tory Eurosceptics played a key role in persuading the Senate to look into the possibility of Britain joining Nafta - a move which would lead to automatic expulsion from the European Union.
Such a plan is understood to have the backing of former frontbencher John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow defence secretary, Eric Forth, a close ally of shadow chancellor Michael Portillo, and backbenchers including Eurosceptic MP Michael Fabricant.
The links, forged through meetings between top Tories and their American counterparts, including Republican Senator Phil Gramm, are being taken by pro-Europeans as a signal that the withdrawal agenda is gaining momentum.
A spokesman for Britain in Europe said: "It shows the increasingly extreme methods to which anti-Europeans are willing to go to make the case for British withdrawal from Europe. Joining Nafta would require Britain to leave the EU which would be cutting off our economic nose to spite our political face."
Britain in Europe is also furious that the Americans met Tory Eurosceptics and anti-single currency groups such as Business for Sterling and the Institute of Directors, but not anyone who would have put the opposite view.
A senior spokesman for the Conservative Party said: "It is no secret that there is a small number of Conservative MPs who have agitated, not necessarily for withdrawal, but for a recasting of the relationship with Europe. But it is a very small number."
He added: "I would utterly repudiate that there is any support in the Shadow Cabinet or from William Hague for withdrawal from the European Union. The policy is 'in Europe, not run by Europe' and the 'in Europe' is as important as the 'not run by Europe'."
Conservative Party policy remains in favour of British membership of Nafta, but through the EU.
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