Conservatives agree to disagree in attempt to contain row on euro

 

The Conservatives tried to put their squabbles over Europe behind them yesterday, taking the opportunity of bad economic news to attack the government.

They insisted the opposing factions within the party had agreed to disagree on the European single currency - but the internal wrangles over the euro continued for a third day in the fringes of the Tory party conference in Bournemouth.

The conference debate on the economy yesterday was well-timed, following an admission by the Chancellor, Mr Gordon Brown, on Tuesday that his forecasts of economic growth would have to be cut back.

But the main focus of the day remained Europe, with the leadership pulling out all the stops to make a key debate on the issue a show of unity.

The two former prime ministers who represent the pro- and anti-European strands in the party, Sir Edward Heath and Baroness Thatcher, shared the conference platform for the first time in years. But Lady Thatcher barely acknowledged the man she deposed as party leader and sat with her back to him for the entire 90-minute debate.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Michael Howard, held out the party leadership's olive branch to those who had opposed Mr William Hague's stance on the single currency in the recent ballot of party members.

Mr Howard said the 15 per cent of members voting against the policy of keeping the pound for this Parliament and the next should not be regarded as "less Conservative" than anyone else.

A prominent pro-European, Mr Stephen Dorrell, a former cabinet minister, was heard in near silence as he declared he had voted "no" and insisted he would not change his mind.

The former chancellor, Mr Kenneth Clarke, one of the most senior figures to attack Mr Hague's policy, welcomed Mr Howard's inclusive speech and insisted the party agreed about most things in Europe.

In the debate on the economy, the Shadow Chancellor, Mr Francis Maude, led the attack on the government, rubbishing Mr Brown's claims that his revised growth forecasts were the result of world economic turmoil.

He said Mr Brown's promises to boost spending on health and education, made this summer, were "folly", spending money Britain had not yet - and now clearly never would - earn.

The Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, Mr John Redwood, claimed one job had been lost every 10 minutes since Labour came to power.

But, as Mr Hague prepared for his keynote speech to the conference today, attention was shifting to the former defence secretary, Mr Michael Portillo, who spoke in Bournemouth last night.

Although he is currently without a parliamentary seat, reports say some of the party are looking to him as a potential successor to Mr Hague.