Major faces backbench showdown

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The Independent Online
Leaders of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs - the "men in grey suits" - last night were preparing for a showdown with the Prime Minister to discuss backbench unrest over Europe and anxiety that the Government is making too many blunders on a range of issues.

The Prime Minister was threatened with an early general election by angry MPs one of whom warned he could resign the Tory whip unless there was an emergency Commons vote on the single Europe currency.

In a stand-off with his own senior backbenchers, Mr Major refused a request for an immediate meeting with Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the Tory 1922 Committee, putting it off until next week. Senior party sources said that Mr Major would not bow to threats from Tory Euro-sceptics.

The Independent learnt that at a meeting of the 1922 Committee - the safety valve for backbench pressure - there was deep unrest among Tory MPs over the Government's handling of the partial ban on guns, as well as demands for a debate on Europe which renewed conflict between the leadership and the Euro-sceptic wing of the party.

Such an open display of nerves with less than six months to go before the next election is dangerous for the Government because it exposes the fragile nature of Tory morale. In an extraordinary move after Prime Minister's question time, at which John Major faced open hostility from his own Euro- sceptic backbenchers, the most senior figures of the Tory backbench said they wanted a meeting with Mr Major.

The call came as around 100 Tory MPs tabled demands for a debate to block moves by the European Commission to create a stability pact, which the Tory Euro-sceptics said could undermine Britain's opt-out from the single European currency.

Sir Marcus and Dame Jill Knight, vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, delivered their message in person to the Government Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad. Senior members of the Tory backbench committee told The Independent they were concerned at the failure of the Government to turn the attack on Tory sleaze against Labour over the secret funding of the private offices for Tony Blair, John Prescott and Gordon Brown.

Meanwhile, senior ministers were holding emergency meetings to prepare the way for a debate to lance a growing boil over Europe after Mr Major failed to reassure Tory MPs that no key decisions would be taken by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, at a meeting of European finance ministers on European monetary union.

Tory Euro-sceptics accused Mr Major of misleading the Commons after he insisted that no key decisions would be taken on European Monetary Union at the forthcoming meeting of European economic and finance ministers (Ecofin) to be attended by Mr Clarke. Mr Major said the decisions would be taken at the European summit in December.

John Redwood, the former Tory leadership challenger, wrote to the Chancellor last night demanding a public assurance that he agreed with the Prime Minister that the key decisions would be taken at the summit, and not by the Chancellor at the Ecofin meeting.

Mr Redwood's supporters said the Euro-sceptics had warned the Government they would vote against it if the Prime Minister continued to resist the pressure for a full Commons debate before the Ecofin meeting early next month.

The former Paymaster General David Heathcoat-Amory, who resigned earlier this year to campaign against economic and monetary union, clashed with Mr Major in the Commons. He warned ministers that it would be "a great mistake" to ignore MPs' wishes. "A warning has been put up - we all want to support the Government - but only if the Government looks after our freedoms," he said.

Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, sounded a Euro-sceptic note in a speech in Manchester, warning that the election would decide between Labour's support for a "social Europe" or "a fundamental change of direction" on Europe. Brian Wilson, Labour campaigns spokesman, said it was posturing for the Tory leadership race.