WILLIAM HAGUE postponed his cull of Tory frontbench "dead wood" yesterday as the Tories fired the first shot in their campaign for the European elections by attacking Romano Prodi, the new President of the European Commission.
The Tory leader made clear he intends to build on the Tories' recovery in the local elections last week by launching a strongly Eurosceptic campaign for the European elections on 10 June. His party seized on comments by Mr Prodi that it was inevitable Europe would move towards a common European army.
John Maples, the Tory defence spokesman, said: "It is time for Europe's Prime Ministers to stop this nonsense and make it clear Europe's defence policy will depend on the Nato alliance and nothing else."
Tony Blair has led the moves towards more defence co- operation in Europe with the French, but has insisted that the EU Commission will have no responsibility for defence, which will be left to ministers.
Mr Prodi said on BBC1's On The Record that a common European army was "the logical next step - unless you want the alternative, you will be marginalised in the new world history". He was not asked whether he envisaged Commission involvement.
Mr Prodi's remarks clearly embarrassed Tony Blair. He was Mr Blair's choice as President of the Commission and Downing Street was forced to disown Mr Prodi's comments.
"We do believe in a common foreign and security policy but not in a European army. Nato remains the cornerstone of our European defence policy and it should stay that way," a spokesman for the Prime Minister said.
But the speed with which Mr Prodi's remarks were attacked by the Tories underlined the readiness of the Tory party to play the Eurosceptic card. Mr Hague hinted that he intends to make the European elections a referendum on the euro. "I think our great advantage in this election will be that we'll be speaking up for the great majority of people," he said on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost.
In spite of trailing behind Labour in the share of the poll in last week's local elections, the Tories' gains of about 1,400 seats were enough to silence Mr Hague's critics.
It gave the Tory leader the confidence to delay, until July, the reshuffle that had been planned for this week if poor results had led to renewed speculation over his leadership. But Mr Hague warned his frontbench team that the reshuffle will come and it will be wide-ranging. "There will be sizeable changes but that will be later in the year," he said.
It emerged yesterday that Gillian Shephard, the ToryEnvironment spokeswoman,warned Mr Hague on Friday that she would announce her own departure from the front bench over the weekend because she was annoyed by leaks that she would be sacked.
"She had had enough of the briefing against her," said one of her friends. "She had told William a year ago that she wanted a low-key role, and a fortnight ago she said she wanted to go. But when she saw the reports she would be sacked, she told him she was going to announce it herself."
t The former Liberal Party leader Lord Steel of Aikwood has announced he is to stand for the post of Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament. The post - equivalent to the Commons Speaker - will be voted on by the 129 MSPs on Wednesday. Lord Steel was elected as a Liberal Democrat MSP on the Lothian regional list.
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