Eight of the nine rebels who lost the whip seven weeks ago over their opposition to the European Finance Bill have kept up the pressure on John Major by calling a news conference today to launch a series of specific plans to "reunite" the party.
The rebels' latest moves - which show every sign of prolonging their isolation from the rest of the party - came after a concerted effort by William Waldegrave, the Agriculture Minister, to buy off a revolt which had threatened a Government defeat over its European fisheries deal.
Last night's vote followed intensive discussions in which restive Ulster Unionists and three potential rebels representing fishing constituencies were given promises of £28m in addition to the £25m compensation already allocated for decommissioning fishing boats as a result of earlier restrictions on the industry.
Mr Waldegrave announced the increase last night, only two hours before the crucial votes in the hope that it would at least assure the Government of victory by eliminating or at least containing the number of abstentions from outside the ranks of the rebels who have lost the whip. Labour's motion, the subject of the first of two Commons votes last night, was designed to maximise the Government's embarrassment over the deal under which Spanish fishermen have been given new rights to fish within the traditional British waters of the 90, 000 sq mile "Irish Box".
At the same time, Mr Waldegrave moved to allay anxieties among the Ulster Unionists by promising that new constitutional proposals in the forthcoming Anglo-Irish framework document would not give Dublin powers over Northern Ireland fisheries by setting up a new cross-border marine fisheries body.
Euro-rebels, however, see the compromise, forced on the Government by qualified majority voting in the European Council of Ministers, as a classic example of Britain's loss of sovereignty. An amendment tabled by 25 Tory and Ulster Unionist MPs had urged that the UK should withdraw from the EU's Common Fisheries Policy and reimpose national fishing limits.
Labour's motion stopped short of this, insisting only that the Government should "convey" to the European Commission "the extent to which this agreement has undermined the credibility of the Common Fisheries Policy" and to seek to re-open the issue in the European Council.
Sir Teddy Taylor, Tory MP for Southend East, last night denied that today's "mission statement" from the Euro-rebels was any kind of precondition for the supportive voting which ministers have said will have to precede restoration of the whip. He said the proposals were designed to reunite the party and to allay what the rebels insist are the mounting fears of voters about the impact of European legislation.Reuse content