The Government, which has a one-vote majority in the Commons, is expected to win tonight with the help of some of the Ulster Unionists. But David Trimble, leader of the nine-strong Unionist contingent in the House, yesterday delivered a strong hint that John Major might not last his full term - through to the planned election in May.
Mr Trimble said that while there was no question of his party doing its "damnedest to bring any government down", the situation could arise where he and his colleagues could support a Labour motion of no confidence, the procedural means of forcing an election.
Pending by-elections threaten Mr Major's majority of one, the margin by which he succeeded in the BSE vote last Wednesday when the Ulster Unionists backed Labour.
There is growing speculation at Westminster that Mr Trimble might be tempted to bring down Mr Major early, to curry favour with an in-coming Labour government. But the Unionists require a government with a small majority if they are to exert maximum influence.
The risk they take is that the sooner the election takes place, the larger the Labour majority might be. However, tonight's vote on guns is expected to see the Government through - with Unionist backing.
David Mellor, the former Cabinet minister, who plans to vote against a three-line government whip for the first time since he became an MP 17 years ago, said yesterday: "They will win the vote but they will lose the argument."
He said on Breakfast with Frost on BBC Television: "The difficulty the Government faces tomorrow is if they had a free vote they would lose.
"Because they're not having a free vote, more timorous spirits than me will vote with the Government against their consciences, so the Government will have a pyrrhic victory."
Mr Mellor added: "I deeply regret, even resent, being put in this position, when if I had views about little Johnny sticking his tongue out at teacher - whether he should be caned or not - I'm allowed to exercise my conscience about that.
"But because I have views about 16 young children being gunned down, the second gun massacre by a licensed handgun holder in less than 10 years ... because I want to sweep handguns away ... I have to vote against the Government on a three-line whip." More than 30 people had died in the two massacres, he pointed out.
In Edinburgh, Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, said of the Government's stance: "Were they to win the vote this way, then neither the parents nor the public would accept it, and the need for a complete handgun ban would inevitably become a general election issue."
The Government also faces revolt from the other side of the argument. Nicholas Budgen, one of the 29 Tory backbenchers who opposed the second reading of the Bill in the Commons last week, because of the scope of the Government's measures, said yesterday that there was an alternative.
He told Sir David Frost that Lord Cullen had suggested stricter rules for getting a licence, and the requirement to belong to a gun club.
"If you have got people properly going through those two barriers, then it seems to me that the chances of anybody holding a handgun legally committing serious offences was very small indeed," Mr Budgen said.Reuse content