Sir Nicholas Bonsor announced his decision to challenge Sir Marcus Fox as the leading backbenchers' representative.
Around 25 rebellious right-wingers stepped up the pressure on ministers by drawing up amendments designed to forestall the Prime Minister's plan to turn the European finance Bill into an issue of confidence.
A meeting of potential abstainers and rebels in the Fresh Start group last night planned their amendments as Sir Nicholas's challenge gave other restive MPs the opportunity to vent their discontent with the party leadership.
The challenge to Sir Marcus - which will take place at the committee's annual election of officers tomorrow - is likely to capitalise on both unease about party strategy and anger over what was regarded in Westminster as Sir Marcus's role last week as Mr Major's messenger.
Sir Marcus annoyed a number of MPs by warning that a defeat for the EU finance Bill could lead to a general election. The warning was followed the next day by the Prime Minister's announcement that the Bill would be treated as an issue of confidence.
Both moves come at a time of serious volatility midway through the two-week period in which Mr Major can be challenged for the leadership, and when the Government is also threatened with a revolt on the second-stage increase in VAT on fuel.
Government loyalists predicted last night that Sir Marcus would beat off the challenge. However, Sir Nicholas, the well-respected chairman of the Defence Select Committee, could attract a substantial if disparate coalition of disenchanted Euro-rebels, more traditionalist shire Tories, and some on the left of the party.
He stressed yesterday that he was loyal ``to the leadership and to John Major'' but believed that it was the job of the 1922 chairman to ``see that the concerns of the backbenchers are clearly, and if necessarily firmly, brought to the attention of the Government''. The rebels' anger surfaced publicly yesterday when Nicholas Budgen, MP for Wolverhampton South West, pressed Mr Major to say if he had consulted the Queen over whether she would agree to dissolve Parliament. Mr Major answered that discussions between Prime Minister and Monarch are confidential.
Mr Major's efforts to contain debate on Europe were put to the test in loyal but Euro-sceptical speeches from two Cabinet right-wingers, Michael Portillo and Jonathan Aitken.Reuse content