Douglas Hurd took decisive steps yesterday to reassert his authority in the face of the Government's increasingly hostile posture towards Europe and to stop the argument within the Tory party from lurching even further out of control. Mr Hurd went out of his way to dampen speculation about his departure by countering a right-wing backbench gibe that he was "yesterday's man" with a forthright declaration that: "I am clearly today's man and I can see a good many tomorrows.''
As Tory turbulence intensified in the wake of an interview in which Michael Portillo, the Employment Secretary, pushed to the limits the Government's agreed determination to veto further integration of the EU, Mr Hurd denied there was a Cabinet split, insisting it had a "common sense hard-headed approach which arises out of Britain's interests".
Some sniping against Mr Hurd from the backbench right, emboldened by the Cabinet's apparent shift towards Euro-scepticism, came as Lord Howe raised the stakes on behalf of the party's pro-Europeans by unfavourably contrasting Tory policy on the EU with Labour's "balanced case for Europe".
Lord Howe, in what Mr Hurd described last night on Channel 4 News as a "warning shot" from the former foreign secretary's wing of the party, added in a clear warning of the electoral pitfalls of too anti-integrationist a Tory stance: "If we depart from the commonsense of that middle ground, we risk not only losing our place in Europe but we risk losing our position in the minds of the British people."
Lord Howe's fears were vindicated last night when a group of right-wingers, led by the Thatcherite George Gardiner, MP for Reigate, wrote to the nine diehard rebels who lost the whip in November inviting them to bury their differences with the Governmentand return to the fold to consolidate what their letter called "policy gains".
The pro-European fightback was reinforced when Edwina Currie, Tory MP for Derbyshire South, acknowledged that it was a "matter of some concern" that Mr Hurd, and Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, had not been more outspoken against a drift to scepticism about Europe in the Tory party.
The fresh infighting came as Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, used a speech in Brussels to reassert British determination to maintain sovereignty in defence and security policy. It was "inconceivable" to consider "constructing the kind of international order we want on anything other than the nation state as the basic building block". He added that the "new Europe" would not be built on the "federalist ambitions" of the 1950s and 1960s. The inter-party consensus on that European issue, was underlined in a keynote speech by Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary. Mr Cook said in London that "foreign and security policy was a defining expression of national identity".
But Mr Rifkind, while insisting the Cabinet had not shifted its position on Europe in recent weeks, and had reached "no conclusions" on its overall stance towards the Inter-Governmental Conference in 1996, endorsed a widespread view among ministers that he is broadly opposed to a monetary union.
Without declaring his hand on whether to step down in the summer, Mr Hurd said it was up to the Prime Minister to decide "who is foreign secretary in summer". But he added: "I have work to do for the foreseeable future, work on Europe, and a great many other things."
Rifkind speech, page 6
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