Smith heads for clash on Europe

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JOHN SMITH, the Labour leader, faces a further damaging clash with his front- bench critics on Europe when the party's national executive committee meets tomorrow.

David Blunkett, the party's health spokesman, is drawing up two amendments on European economic policy to a document outlining the future development of the party. The move indicates the willingness of some NEC members to defy a leadership edict that discussion of the European issue should be deferred until a joint Shadow Cabinet and NEC meeting on 23 September - after the result of the French referendum on Maastricht.

Mr Smith's front-bench critics seemed undeterred yesterday by reports that they faced the sack if they continued to speak out against party policy after 23 September. On Friday, sources close to Mr Smith said that all members of the Shadow Cabinet would be bound by collective responsibility once a decision on the way forward had been agreed.

Although some of Mr Blunkett's allies accept the case for delaying a general debate, they argue that the NEC has the right to make corrections in the language of an important strategy document. Mr Blunkett said yesterday: 'There is no danger that sensible debate will lead to damaging divisions. Without debate and internal democracy the party has the unity of the graveyard.'

The two amendments will be designed to ensure that the party keeps open the option of considering possible realignment of European currencies, including the pound, and of ensuring greater accountability for a European Central Bank. The move is expected to win support from other senior Labour figures, such as Bryan Gould, national heritage spokesman, and John Prescott, transport spokesman, who have taken a line independent of the party leadership. On Friday both Mr Gould and Mr Blunkett made Euro-sceptic speeches, and John Morris, shadow attorney general, called for a British referendum on Maastricht.

Tomorrow's NEC meeting has been called to discuss the party's new document, Agenda for Change, which aims to map out a strategy to appeal to many of the aspiring middle-class voters who failed to vote Labour in the last election.

Mr Smith is keen to avoid making statements on European policy before the outcome of the French referendum and his allies say he is 'relaxed' about the debate until policy has been determined. With the exception of Gordon Brown, shadow chancellor, other leading Labour figures such as Margaret Beckett, deputy leader, and Jack Cunningham, foreign affairs spokesman, have also been sparing in their pronouncements.

The leadership blames much of the current divisive debate on the looming NEC elections, although allies of Mr Gould and Mr Prescott point out that they had contested the Labour leadership on precisely these issues.

Meanwhile, speculation grew yesterday that the former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, may have to wait to be offered a post of European Commissioner. Newspaper reports that the Cabinet is divided over the appointment were interpreted as a setback to his prospects. Some Labour sources believe that the current Labour- appointed commissioner, Bruce Millan, may be asked to stay longer in office, making way for Mr Kinnock at a less politically-sensitive time.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Lberal Democrats, will spend three days a week outside Westminster in an attempt to reach out to more voters. The Liberal Democrats, who begin their party conference in Harrogate today, want to broaden their appeal to those who currently belong to no political party.

Europe on the brink, pages 16,17