Ministers defy Unionist threat to topple Major

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The Independent Online
Threats by senior Ulster Unionist politicians to cause an early general election by withdrawing support for John Major were dismissed last night by a Cabinet minister as "beyond belief".

The warnings that the nine Unionists could withdraw their support were made as the Irish and British governments prepared to make further progress on the framework document setting out plans for the future government of Northern Ireland.

Fearing a sell-out over cross-border bodies with executive powers, which Dublin has been keen to promote, John Taylor, the MP for Strangford, said the Ulster Unionists, under James Molyneaux, would withdraw their support for Mr Major, if he gave them toomuch power.

"I'd be very surprised. They have been very impressed with the Prime Minister. It won't happen. It's beyond belief," said the Cabinet source. The Unionists helped Mr Major survive the no-confidence vote when eight Tories lost the whip by rebelling, and one resigned after supporting the Government. Their votes are even more vital, while the nine MPs are still free to vote against the Government.

The precarious hold Mr Major now has on power gives the Ulster Unionists extra bargaining power, and ministers believe they are flexing their muscles before the framework document is produced. They do not believe they would force a general election and risk a Labour government.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will meet Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, this week to assess the prospect for publishing the document. They will report back to Mr Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister.

Today, Sinn Fein representatives and senior civil servants meet at Stormont .It will be the third time the two sides have got together since the IRA ceasefire, and government pressure on the provisionals to make a move towards decommissioning weapons is likely to intensify.

Mr Major yesterday continued his charm offensive with his own party by holding a luncheon at Chequers for the 18 members of the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, chaired by Sir Marcus Fox. Mr Major was reported to be in "bullish" mood about Tory prospects.

The Secretary of State for Employment, Michael Portillo, yesterday said Mr Major was preparing a Euro-sceptic strategy paper for the 1996 inter-governmental conference on the future of Europe, which would help to reunite the party.

He said the Prime Minister's pledge to oppose a single currency if it is proposed in 1996 marked "a turning point" for the Tory Party's recovery. Mr Portillo underlined his hopes that the nine rebels would be restored to the whip, although on Friday theyrebuffed overtures.

"I think the conditions for reuniting the Conservative Party are now in place."

Leading article, page 13

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