If right-wingers vote against the Government tonight, the whip may be withdrawn from them. If the whip were withdrawn they would not be able to vote for or in a leadership election. Some will find that sufficient reason to hold back.
If the Government withdrew the whip from the right-wingers who voted against it, and if there were 14 of them, it could no longer guarantee the working majority it now has, at least on paper. This may be sufficient cause not to withdraw the whip.
John Major is expected to clear the first hurdle today in what remains a critical week for his leadership after his opponents launched a final effort to increase their backing for a leadership challenge.
With ministers confident of securing passage today of the Bill to raise Britain's contributions to the European Union, the former Chancellor Norman Lamont brought significant relief to the embattled Prime Minister by all but ruling himself out as a potential ''stalking horse'' after the passing of a deadline for a contest to be called.
Mr Lamont excited hopes among Mr Major's enemies that he could yet be persuaded to stand by adopting the formula adopted by Michael Heseltine that he could not ''envisage the circumstances'' in which he would participate in a leadership election. But his insistence that he did not want to get involved came amid indications that a group of right-wingers, that included Edward Leigh, another sacked ex-minister, were having an uphill struggle to persuade left wing supporters of Michael Heseltine to join the call. Although William Powell, once Mr Heseltine's Parliamentary Private Secretary, called on Mr Major to resign, one prominent left-wing Tory said last night: ''The right have got do this on their own.''
None the less, Mr Lamont's intervention in an interview on the BBC's On the Record television programme failed to obliterate the atmosphere of crisis, with some right-wingers insisting that there was still a ''50-50'' chance of securing the 34 names needed to launch a contest by the deadline of noon on Wednesday. And one senior minister warned that the impact of Tuesday's Budget could still be crucial in determining whether a contest took place.
Ministers still face the threat of a damaging parliamentary revolt against the second-stage increase in VAT on fuel next week. All the signs last night were that Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, was firmly resisting pressure from some Cabinet colleagues - including Jeremy Hanley, the Tory party chairman - to reconsider the increase before tomorrow's Budget.
The prospect of a revolt could be further complicated if a significant minority of Euro-sceptics defy the government whips and either abstain or even vote against the Government on the EU finance Bill.
Senior ministers were none the less confident that when it came to it not more than six diehards at the very most would defy tonight's three-line whip. And with the rebels themselves divided about the wisdom of opposing the Bill, they would probably be able to discipline the offenders by withdrawing the whip without endangering the Government's working majority of 14 - likely to fall to 13 after the Dudley West by-election.
Mr Major was offered strong support yesterday in interviews by the two most prominent ''inside right'' Eurosceptics in the Cabinet, Michael Howard and Jonathan Aitken, both of whom conspicuously failed to close the door to a future referendum on Europe. The idea of a referendum - demanded yesterday by Mr Lamont - is gaining currency in the face of Eurosceptic pressure and unmistakable signs that Labour is warming to the proposal.
Mr Howard pointed out that a referendum had already been promised on a political settlement for Northern Ireland while Mr Aitken acknowledged in another interview that any change to a single currency would be an ''epic constitutional issue''.
In a further sign of ideological divisions within the party, it was disclosed that the party's centre left had held a secret seminar of parliamentary candidates and would-be candidates to reduce the right-wing intake of MPs.
Secret seminar, page 3
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