PRIME Minister John Major has decided that the best way to find out what the British really think about Europe may be to ask them.
Since taking office four years ago, Mr. Major has consistently dodged the prospect of consulting voters on European Union membership. But he edged toward a sharp U-turn in the House of Commons on Dec. 12 when he announced ``I have indicated that the circumstances might be appropriate to have a referendum, and if they are, we will.''
A referendum wouldn't necessary lead to dropping out of the EU, but it would change Britain's relationship with its fellow members. A vote against a single EU currency, for example, would leave Britain sidelined in that enterprise, putting Britain in Europe's ``slow lane.''
The sudden turnaround in government policy will probably become official early in the New Year, even though the vote itself may not occur until election time in 1996. But Major, caught in a bind between unpopular ratings with the public and rebels within his own party, could not wait until then to pull his government together.
Westminster political sources are suggesting that the prime minister sees a referendum as the key to reuniting the Conservative Party on the Europe issue.
A group of 30 to 40 Euroskeptics in the ruling party have been demanding a referendum. Bill Cash, one of their leaders, says the best way ``to heal divisions in our ranks is to let the people decide the issue.''
Major has a powerful ally in his wish to take the pressure off the government on Europe by consulting the people. Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, is said by officials to believe that a referendum will probably be necessary.
But the prime minister still has to win over two heavyweights in his Cabinet. Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke and Trade Secretary Michael Heseltine both still say they don't want the vote.
The government's possible flip-flop drew a rebuke from Sir Edward Heath, the former Conservative prime minister. ``A referendum is not the answer,'' he said. ``What the prime minister needs to do is to rebuild his authority.'' He added that it was ``deplorable'' that ``Eurorebels'' appeared to be in control of the government.
But Major needs to win them over. He lacks a clear majority in the Commons, following the recent withdrawal of the Conservative Party whip from a group of Euroskeptics who opposed Britain paying more cash into the EU budget.
In an obvious attempt to say something that would appeal to the Eurorebels, Major also told the Commons that other European leaders did not have to put up with such detailed parliamentary scrutiny.
``Some of my fellow heads of government could hardly find their way to their national parliaments with a guide dog,'' he declared to loud cheers from Conservative backbenchers.
Labour members of parliament demanded that he withdraw the comment, and Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, wrote to Major, saying his comment risked undermining Britain's standing in the EU.
Downing Street sources now say a referendum could be used to decide two bitterly contentious issues: whether Britain should join a single EU currency; and what attitude to take to the planned EU intergovernmental conference in 1996 if it demands changes in Britain's constitution.
As well as adjusting policy to appease Conservative Euroskeptics, Major is being pushed toward a referendum by the growing enthusiasm for one of the opposition Labour Party.
John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said that his party would ``definitely'' call for a referendum before any fundamental move towards a stronger EU.
Opinion polls have suggested that a majority of British voters are suspicious of the EU, and support the idea of a referendum.
An ICM poll in the Observer newspaper on Dec. 11 showed 70 percent want a referendum. Last September a MORI poll found 57 percent in favour and 15 percent against.
Until now Major has argued that under Britain's parliamentary system of government, the only time the people need to be consulted is at general elections held once every five years. This is the view Mr. Clarke and Mr. Heseltine still take.
But there is a precedent for staging a referendum on Europe. In 1974, two years after Britain joined what was then the European Community, a Labour government called one and obtained a clear majority for remaining inside the EC.
Also, Major has promised the people of Northern Ireland that the province's future will not be decided without a referendum.
Mr. Cash and other Euroskeptics have lately been arguing that if a referendum is good enough for Northern Ireland it should be good enough for the entire United Kingdom.