A far-right Anglo-French multimillionaire, using tactics borrowed from America's Ross Perot, is driving a wedge into the heart of Britain's ruling Conservative Party.
Sir James Goldsmith's threat to field up to 600 third-party general election candidates demanding a referendum on membership in the European Union (EU) has provoked counterblasts from senior government figures, including Prime Minister John Major.
But it is also fueling discontent among Conservative members of Parliament. While they may share some of the key ideas of Goldsmith's Referendum Party (RP), they don't want anything to do with it.
A Conservative Party memo made public in late April indicated that between 60 and 100 Conservative MPs opposed to the EU are preparing to rebel against their party's official pro-Europe stance in the general election that must be held within a year.
They will oppose Britain joining a single European currency and will also ask voters to support a call for a referendum on wider relations with Europe - both positions held by Goldsmith and his supporters.
The Paris-based Goldsmith made his millions as an investor and publisher. During the last elections in France for the European Parliament, he won a seat for himself. And his dual-country party, which opposes further European integration, garnered 11 percent of the French vote. He is hoping to have a comparable impact in Britain.
Some signs indicate that in taking an antigovernment line on Europe, the Conservative rebel MPs will enjoy considerable popular support. A MORI organization opinion poll on April 27 showed that 8 in 10 people who voted Conservative at the last general election in 1992 say there should be a referendum.
On April 29, Mr. Major for the first time admitted publicly that a majority of British voters would say no to a single currency if a referendum were held now.
The financier's threatened entry into the coming campaign owes much to Ross Perot and his intervention in the 1992 US presidential election. Goldsmith wants to force Conservative candidates to adopt policies on Europe akin to his own.
He plans to put up candidates in most of the 651 contested parliamentary seats, and offers to withdraw them if the Conservative Party candidates agree to support a referendum.
Goldsmith's advisers say he has earmarked 20 million ($30 million) of his own money for the general election campaign.
The Conservatives have a majority of one in the current Parliament, and at the general election will be fighting with their backs to the wall.
Sir James hopes that by pressuring would-be Conservative MPs to hew to his views on Europe, he will force Major to weaken his support for EU membership and advise voters to adopt an openly critical attitude toward Europe.
Major so far has refused to bend under Sir James's pressure. In a widely quoted speech on April 24, the prime minister said politicians pressing for withdrawal were living in "cloud cuckoo-land."
"We are in Europe, and we all know we are staying in Europe," he told an audience of 2,000 leading businessmen. That same audience later, however, voted against Britain joining a single European currency.
The passions being aroused by Goldsmith's intervention appear to reflect deepening resentment among Britons that other EU nations expect them to toe the European line.
Anthony Bevins, a leading political analyst, wrote in the London Observer April 28: "The long-dormant beast of British nationalism has shaken itself awake and flung itself on the trembling body of the Conservative Party."
The government's attempts to push back a nationalist, anti-European tide among voters have been made no easier by the controversy about British beef.
A month ago, the government announced that some British beef could be dangerous to humans. This persuaded the EU to slap a worldwide ban on British exports of beef - a move that threatens thousands of jobs in the meat industry.
So far all London's efforts to get the ban lifted have failed. The EU is demanding that Britain slaughter most of its herd as the price of removing the ban.
The tough line taken by Brussels has angered British government ministers. Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind last week threatened retaliatory action, but gave no details.
Major meanwhile set in motion an appeal to the European Court of Justice against the Brussels ban.
The toughest line on British beef has been taken by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. His views on the general future of the integration of Europe and Britain also are incensing British politicians and helping to boost nationalist resentment among Britain's so-called Euro-skeptics.
Ahead of a visit to London April 29, the German chancellor was reported to have told members of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee visiting Bonn that Britain would be "forced" to join a single currency.
Ironically, although Goldsmith may have some success in pushing his anti-EU line in Britain, any progress he makes is likely to help the opposition Labour Party. Labour, widely predicted to win the coming general election, is broadly pro-EU.