Right-wing Conservatives rallied to the defence of Sir George Gardiner, who yesterday threatened to resign his Reigate seat unless party members back him on 28 June. One backbencher called on the Prime Minister to give public backing to Sir George - a persistent critic of Mr Major's leadership.
But the party's left-wingers are privately jubilant that such a well- known Eurosceptic faces de-selection by his local party. On Friday, Sir George's constituency executive voted 15-14 to allow other candidates to contest the seat. Yesterday the MP expressed confidence that the 1,200 members of his association will support him on 28 June.
But he added: "In the unlikely event that I do not receive their confidence, I confirm I would move aside quickly so they could choose a candidate who might. I would apply for the Chiltern Hundreds [the parliamentary term for resignation of a seat] at the first opportunity. I have no interest in being a lame-duck MP unable to push grassroots values at Westminster and with little clout representing my constituents, either."
Local Tories fear that the Government will lose Reigate and its one-vote majority in the Commons if Sir George carries out his threat to force a by-election and stands as an independent Conservative. Although the Conservatives had a majority of more than 17,000 at the last election, they have not held a seat at a by-election during this parliament.
Surrey county councillor Angela Fraser, who was among those voting against the sitting MP on Friday, said: "That is the worst act that could possibly happen, so far as the Government is concerned. We would lose the seat undoubtedly if he stood against the official candidate."
Local sources also say that the outcome of the special meeting on 28 June - at which Sir George will seek a vote of confidence - will be very close. Ms Fraser said: "There is a groundswell in favour of change."
At Westminster, the issue threatened to polarise Tory divisions, presenting the Prime Minister with another party management crisis.
Sir George, a former journalist, used to chair the 92 Group of right- wingers, and backs the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group.
John Carlisle, a right-wing supporter of Sir George, predicted: "He will take on hero status. He could be a folk hero among some Conservatives if he takes that [by-election] course. His threat must be taken very, very seriously.
"It is damaging, but we must have a party of principles. George believes in those principles and, on that basis, therefore, it might elicit a full- blown supportive statement from the Prime Minister that he very much shares George's aims and objectives."
Senior Conservative sources immediately played down the prospect of any intervention by Mr Major or Central Office.Reuse content