As ministers began a concerted campaign to woo the Unionists - including meetings this week - Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said on BBC Radio Ulster that keeping the Conservatives in office was in their interest. 'They now know what is in store, if a Labour government is elected, for Northern Ireland,' he added, referring to proposals floated by Labour for a settlement between Dublin and London over the heads of the Ulster parties.
Sir Patrick, by implying that the Government could fall, seemed to contradict the Prime Minister's line that it expects to win Thursday's vote. John Hume, SDLP, said the remarks were 'an insult'. The levels to which Sir Patrick was prepared to stoop to stay in power were becoming 'quite disgusting'.
Allies of the minister said later that Sir Patrick did not believe that an election could be precipitated immediately but was pointing out the dangers of undermining the Prime Minister's authority.
Support or abstention by the nine Ulster Unionists could rescue the Government from a defeat that might threaten John Major's future. Only hours before the Commons votes, senior Unionist MPs, including John Taylor MP for Strangford, will meet Sir Patrick to discuss the growing insecurity in the province. One informed source said that the leader of the Ulster Unionists, Jim Molyneaux, had already had discussions with Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, and a select committee for Northern Ireland is almost certainly on offer. The Government might also offer more regular consultation on security matters with the Unionists, who are themselves split on how they should vote.
Downing Street discounted rumours of a meeting between Mr Major and Mr Molyneaux this week saying that none was 'scheduled or listed'.
The Northern Ireland Secretary is the second minister in a week to hint about the possibility of a general election. Peter Brooke, the National Heritage Secretary, in what was widely regarded as a gaffe, told wavering Christchurch by-election voters on Wednesday that a Tory defeat would hasten a general election that Labour might win.
Mr Major will make a last- ditch appeal for support from Tory rebels in a television interview today. Eight to 12 rebels are threatening to vote for the Social Chapter in the hope that the Government will be unable to ratify the Maastricht Treaty.
Mr Major will attack the Social Chapter as a programme for the destruction of jobs and argue that no one who cares about Britain would vote for it.
On Friday the Prime Minister privately met 150 constituency chairmen and activists in the East Midlands as part of a programme to rally support. Conservative Central Office said more meetings with Tory workers may take place this summer but that this was usual practice.
Conservative rebels remained confident of damaging the Government in this week's vote. One said: 'There is a hierarchy which goes country, party and leader. I don't believe that this will destroy the party. I think Euro-sceptics would push it to the extent of destroying John Major, but not the Government.'
A well-placed government source said: 'On paper we should lose but I believe that, on the night, we will win'.Reuse content