SENIOR British Cabinet ministers are uniting to resist attempts by their junior colleagues to push the government into policies that would loosen - and perhaps even break - the country's ties with the European Union.
Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, and Trade Secretary Michael Heseltine are spearheading the strategy that government officials say has Prime Minister John Major's full backing. They aim to offer, in the words of one government official, ``necessary resistance'' to a younger group of ministers and members of Parliament (MPs) who want to stop Britain from cooperating with other EU governments in the pursuit of European political and economic integration.
Mr. Major's primary rival among Euro-skeptics may be Employment Secretary Michael Portillo, who many commentators see as a potential prime minister. He openly mocked EU institutions at last week's annual Conservative Party conference.
But the need for the strategy became apparent at the conference before he spoke, when Norman Lamont, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, said it might be necessary for Britain to withdraw from the EU.
Britain, Mr. Lamont said, should reject outright the goal of a federal European superstate. If it could not convince its EU partners that such a goal was unrealistic, quitting the EU would have to be considered as an option.
It was the first time that such a senior Conservative figure had publicly stated that leaving the EU might become necessary.
Lamont's speech was followed by comments by Mr. Portillo, who received a four-minute standing ovation for his fervently anti-European speech.
Lord Tebbit, a former Conservative Party chairman and leading Euro-skeptic, said Britain should tell the EU that a single European currency was ``not a desirable goal.'' Lord Tebbit also attacked the European Court for ``undermining British sovereignty.''
The onslaught on the EU sparked a reply by Mr. Hurd, who urged Conservatives to ``resist siren sounds imploring Britain to turn its back on Europe.''
In other carefully coordinated speeches, Mr. Clarke, Mr. Heseltine, and Lord Howe, the former deputy prime minister, all argued that current British policy toward the EU was correct.
In a riposte to Portillo, Howe said: ``Wrapping ourselves in the Union Jack would simply be a prelude to burial at sea in clear blue water somewhere out in the mid-Atlantic.'' Portillo had told the conference that the Conservative Party, whose color is blue, should put ``clear blue water'' between itself and the Labour opposition over European policy.
In addition to the speech from Portillo, Major's counterattack may also have been influenced by a poll of Conservative MPs carried out by the Independent newspaper before the conference.
The poll showed that 69 percent oppose Britain joining a single European currency, with 56 percent wanting a new ``act of supremacy'' affirming the ultimate power of the British Parliament, and 60 percent opposing the European Commission's right to initiate EU legislation.
Major finds himself squeezed between EU critics in his own party and the Labour Party under Tony Blair, its new leader, which strongly favors a pro-EU policy.
Portillo, Lamont, and Tebbit appear to want to take advantage of the government's current unpopularity with voters - it is 30 points behind Labour in polls - by pressuring Major to change course on European policy.
Euro-skeptics say anti-EU feeling is even stronger among grass-roots Conservatives than among the party's MPs.
In his speech to the Conservative conference, Major made only a brief reference to Europe. His government would not be deflected from its aim to keep Britain within a multispeed, multitiered EU, he said.
The prime minister's advisers say he wants to place stress on domestic policy, with curbing inflation and spurring economic recovery as his main priorities.