A Labour motion of censure against the Minister of Agriculture, Douglas Hogg, was defeated by 320 votes to 307 - a Government majority of 13 - after Mr Hogg had delivered a blatant plea for Ulster Unionist support on the "mad cow" crisis.
In the event, all nine Ulster Unionists abstained, but another four Opposition party MPs were absent and the Prime Minister was left to fight another day. A full turn-out on both sides of the House would have resulted in a 320-320 tie.
Labour now expects Mr Major to play his Orange card; delivering the Ulster Unionists a Northern Ireland Grand Committee, which will have special powers to call and question ministers. Because the Unionists will want that committee to be up and running before the election, and because that could take a month, the Prime Minister would then be free to call the election at a time of his own choosing.
Secure in the knowledge that the Unionists would not back any Labour attempt to force an earlier election, Mr Major could even announce a May Day election when he addresses a Conservative conference to be held in Birmingham on Saturday.
An election on 1 May would require the dissolution of Parliament on 8 April, leaving the Government five weeks to complete its legislative programme, followed by a one-week Easter break, and then dissolution.
With Ulster Unionist support in the Commons, a Labour win in next week's Wirral South by-election would have no practical impact on Mr Major's election timing.
Last night's debate, on a technical censure motion to cut Mr Hogg's salary by pounds 1,000, provided abundant evidence of the Prime Minister's willingness to buy parliamentary support.
With Mr Hogg in the firing line of Labour's attack on government handling of BSE, it was left to him to plead for the votes, or abstentions, of David Trimble and his eight Ulster Unionist colleagues in the House.
Openly bidding for Unionist support, Mr Hogg told MPs that he would be making a general application for a lifting of the European ban on United Kingdom beef exports, along with a particular plea for Ulster. That was later capped in the winding-up by Roger Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who offered Ulster cattle-farmers an extra pounds 9m aid.
In his speech, Mr Hogg promised that an application on lifting the beef ban would be submitted to the European Commission within "the next two weeks". But after months of delay, Whitehall sources said last night that there was no chance of any progress being made on beef exports before May at the earliest. Asked to explain the delay, official sources said that ministers had been forced to juggle between competing factions; the farmers, the Commission, and the different parts of the United Kingdom.
Replying to the Labour motion, Mr Hogg pointed out that the National Farmers' Union had initially opposed the selective cull, the prerequisite for European action on lifting the ban on British exports. "It was not until late last year, that the majority opinion within the farming community swung behind the selective cull," Mr Hogg said.
But he also told MPs that the Government had only recently started the process of tracing the cattle to be culled.
Labour's spokesman, Gavin Strang, said the last government "gave us poll tax; this government has given us the beef tax" - with a bill, so far, of more than pounds 3bn.
Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman, said: "Farmers are suffering, and the taxpayers are footing the bill. Mr Hogg should at least apologise, then the Government must knuckle down to the real task of lifting the beef ban."
After the vote, the Conservative Party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, accused Labour of "disgraceful" opportunism.Reuse content