John Major last night failed in a last-ditch attempt to persuade Peter Thurnham, the dissident Tory MP for Bolton North East, to lift his threat to resign the party whip and vote against the Government in Monday's crucial Commons division on the Scott report.
After a 70-minute meeting in the Prime Minister's Commons office between Mr Major, Mr Thurnham, his wife Sarah and the deputy chief whip, Greg Knight, Tory sources had said that they expected Mr Thurnham to "consider the position" over the weekend and that the two men could meet again.
But even before Mr Thurnham delivered his letter resigning the whip, there had been no attempt to put an optimistic gloss on last night's talks, which covered the Scott report and other subjects, including Mr Thurnham's failure to secure an interview for the candidacy in the safe Westmoreland seat where he lives. One official felt the talks had secured a "breathing space".
In their Commons meeting, after most MPs had gone home, Mr Major was said to have mounted a robust defence of Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, and William Waldegrave, the Treasury Chief Secretary. The strength of the defence, according to one Tory official, may have "taken Mr Thurnham by surprise." Now that Mr Thurnham has announced his resignation of the party whip, the Government's majority is reduced from four to three. Earlier last night, before Mr Thurnham delivered his letter , Tory sources had hoped he might abandon the plan altogether.
The Bolton MP, who is widely respected in the Commons as an energetic constituency MP with a strong social conscience, had kept Government whips guessing since being rebuffed for the Westmoreland seat in which Tim Collins, the former Conservative Central Office director of communications, is now the candidate.
There have been hints Thurnham may stand in Westmoreland as an independent, or even as a Liberal Democrat, although that would mean the existing candidate Liberal Democrat, Stan Collins, deciding to stand down. Nor is it thought certain by senior Liberal Democrats that Mr Thurnham is ready to defect to them.
Mr Thurnham said last week: "For many months I have been increasingly concerned about falling values and standards of public service in the Conservative Party and the performance of the Government.
"The Scott Report and the way the Government responded have only added to my dissatisfaction.
"I am asking for an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister so that I can put the views of my constituents to him. I will listen carefully to what he has to say."
An opinion poll that he commissioned in his constituency found 42 per cent agreed he ought to resign the Tory whip, 22 per cent disagreed, while 36 per cent had no opinion.Reuse content