and COLIN BROWN
John Major last night warned the Tory party that his own removal would propel it into an electoral "abyss" as he set about reassuring Eurosceptic MPs on the eve of a crucial meeting with the right-wing 92 Group tonight.
Mr Major began an urgent personal canvass of floating voters to force his level of support in tomorrow's vote above the danger level after publicly promising that there would be no "recriminations" against his right-of- centre opponents.
While the Prime Minister's ministerial supporters continued to insist that Mr Major would win decisively under the rules, there were signs of anxiety over whether the Mr Major had yet secured enough support to ensure that the party was governable under his leadership.
In a stark appeal to the party to unite behind him, Mr Major said it would be "madness" to allow "deepening disunity" to allow the "socialists to walk away with the prize". In an article for today's Daily Telegraph, he says the party has a choice between jumping "into the abyss" or "finishing this business" by delivering a decisive vote for him tomorrow.
In a clear setback for the Prime Minister, the Telegraph says in an editorial "It is time for Mr Major to go" and give another leader the chance to "save the Tories".
The Major campaign yesterday sought to bolster his support with a clear signal to the Tory right that they had no cause to oppose the Prime Minister. The moves came after one of his leading Cabinet allies said that the party needed him to win "very substantially".
Mr Major was personally telephoning a series of uncommitted MPs from Downing Street as his campaigners went all out to convince right-wing MPs that he would not allow the centre-left of the party to exploit a low vote for his challenger John Redwood by shifting the party to a more overtly pro-European stance.
"I am not in the business of recriminations. I am not a factional politician. I want a United Kingdom, a united party. And I believe in the politics of persuasion," he told Sir David Frost on BBC Television.
The Prime Minister did not budge from his line last week that he would not rule out a single currency. But he sought to reassure the right by again holding out the prospect that Britain could lead those countries which decided to stay out of European Monetary Union in 1999.
Mr Major appeared last night to be treading a delicate path between reassurance of the right and the need not to alienate centre-left MPs who might abstain in order to boost the prospects of a second ballot which might allow Michael Heseltine to enter the contest. Mr Major brushed aside the claim in a leaflet produced by the Redwood campaign that the Tories had "no chance" without a change, adding: "The Conservative Party wins elections from the centre-right. That is where I stand."
Mr Major's newspaper article today is clearly directed at all strands of the party. Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, said on BBC Television's On the Record: "I sense that the coming together of the party is to recognise that the Prime Minister is going to win on Tuesday and that it is in all our interests that he should win very substantially." But while Mr Lang insisted Mr Major would "win big", ministers in private appeared to be preparing for a relatively narrow margin of victory by drawing attention to the precedent of the 60 per cent vote secured by Tony Blair in the Labour leadership contest.
Although the official line of the Major campaign continues to be that the Prime Minister can expect to stay in office however narrowly he wins, an exact parallel with the Blair result would give him just under 200 with Mr Redwood a relatively impressive 132 votes - a showing some MPs believe would be the very minimum he would require to resist pressure to step down.
A poll in the Sunday Express predicted that Mr Major would secure 224 votes to 60 for Mr Redwood and 45 abstentions.
A number of right-of-centre MPs will wait until tonight's 92 Group meeting, which will also be addressed by Mr Redwood, before deciding how to vote.