Britain's political turmoil grows
But Major plays down dispute over European policy
December 6, 1996
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EST (1700 GMT)
In this story:
LONDON (CNN) -- British Prime Minister John Major faced
turmoil in his ruling party on Friday, with Conservative
members of parliament (MPs) furious at his handling of
European policy and calling for the removal of finance
minister Kenneth Clarke.
"Meltdown," "civil war" and "chaos" were some of the
front-page headlines describing Major's woes. An opinion poll
showed the Conservatives were a staggering 37 points behind
Labor with an election due within the next five months.
Major fought to play down the dispute, sparked by reports
that Clarke had threatened to quit if there was any hardening
of government policy against a European single currency.
Clarke, a staunch pro-European with few allies in Major's
cabinet, has denied the reports.
Britain's role in united Europe disputed
Aides from the prime minister's office described relations
between Clarke and Major as "good," adding that Major was
"resolute and getting on with his job." Major told reporters
outside a school he was visiting in his central England
constituency that Clarke had his full support.
Rank-and-file Conservative MPs, led by those on the party's
"Eurosceptic" wing -- opposed to any moves towards European
integration -- are furious at Clarke's bid to hold the line
on Europe and what they see as Major's failure to resist.
The Eurosceptics want Major to rule out British entry into a
single currency during the next parliament, a move opposed by
Clarke who wants Britain to retain its "wait-and-see" policy.
Labor leader Tony Blair said the government was "visibly
disintegrating" and "descending into shambles."
"If they can't be trusted to keep the Conservative party
together, how on Earth can they run the country?...The sooner
they are put out of their misery the better," Blair said.
Blair's blunt remarks coincided with media speculation that
the latest dispute over Europe could escalate, forcing Major
-- who is nursing a fragile one-seat parliamentary majority
-- to call a snap election well ahead of the May deadline.
Conservative party managers were hoping that the return of
MPs to their constituencies this weekend will calm tempers.
But former minister Edward Leigh said Clarke was in a
minority and both he and Major had to accept the will of the
party, which was against a single currency.
Eurosceptic Tony Marlow demanded Clarke's resignation as the
anger usually expressed by Conservative MPs behind closed
doors boiled over.
'Who's running the government?'
Their fury erupted at a private meeting on Thursday night,
where one was reported to have asked: "Who's running the
government, Clarke or Major?"
Friday's poll showed Labor's lead had soared by 10 points
since Clarke's crucial pre-election budget last month which
included a one percentage point cut in income tax.
The Gallup poll showed Labor support had risen four points
to 59, while the Conservatives fell six points to 22.
Bookmakers immediately lengthened the odds of the
Conservatives hanging on in power at the election from 9-4 to
Reuters contributed to this report.
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