Portillo ordered to toe the party line: John Major demands statement of support from Treasury minister after outburst over EMU. Donald Macintyre reports

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR yesterday ordered Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to pledge his support for Cabinet policy on a single currency as ministers fought to stabilise the party in the run-up to tomorrow's local elections.

The Prime Minister secured a public pledge by Mr Portillo that he stood 'full square' behind the government policy 'that the question of a single currency will be made in the future if it has to be decided at all'.

Mr Portillo's declaration, which followed a firm demand by Downing Street to Mr Portillo's office, helped to contain the shockwave sent through Tory ranks on Sunday after the Chief Secretary's overtly hostile remarks on monetary union in a GMTV television interview.

Mr Portillo dismissed suggestions - freely canvassed in Westminster - that he was positioning himself as a leadership candidate. But he made it clear that he was not 'retracting what I said' - insisting that his earlier remarks were 'compatible with the Government's policy on a single currency'.

His carefully worded response to pressure from an irritated Downing Street to reassert collective Cabinet responsibility did little to diminish his rapidly rising profile as a potential standard-bearer for the right, in the event of a leadership crisis after the European elections next month.

While even ministers and MPs sympathetic to his views on Europe expressed surprise at Mr Portillo's remarks so soon before the local elections, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, went furthest in expressing frustration at the divisions exposed over the weekend.

On BBC Radio's Today programme, Mr Rifkind declared: 'If individuals and public figures cannot exercise self-discipline, they must accept responsibility for the consequences of that.'

He added: 'All our efforts, comments, contributions, must be concentrated on supporting our local government candidates.'

Mr Rifkind reacted sharply to the outburst - the latest political equivalent of friendly fire - by David Evans, a right-wing member of the backbench 1922 Committee, who on Monday named his preferred reshuffle victims and acknowledged that about 50 MPs remained implacably opposed to Mr Major. Mr Rifkind said Mr Evans was 'entitled to his views', but the proper course was to express them privately.

The text of Mr Portillo's weekend remarks helps bear out his claim that there had been 'a certain amount of telescoping' in the reporting of them. But he said that a single currency would go 'a long way' towards a 'central European government', adding later that political union would mean the 'impossible' course of giving up 'the government of the UK'.

In boisterous Commons exchanges with John Smith, the Labour leader, Mr Major said Mr Portillo 'fully supported' government policy on a single currency - a policy of neutrality underpinned by the right of Parliament to opt out of EMU, and restated last night by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, at a meeting with backbenchers.

Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' economic spokesman, taunted Mr Major with Mr Portillo's remarks, asking: 'Have things gone so far that you cannot sack the young pretender?'

Portillo's words, page 8

Julian Critchley letter, page 19

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