Senior ministers last night began to draw up contingency plans for a hasty retreat from their commitment to divorce law reform in the face of mounting anxiety within the Cabinet and open opposition on the Tory right wing.
Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, was facing an increasingly uphill struggle to keep his Bill alive and intact as ministers openly speculated about the possibility that it could be dropped from the Queen's Speech in order to avoid an embarrassing split in Conservative ranks.
Cabinet ministers are unlikely to take a final decision on the Bill, which ends the "quickie" divorce based on fault and imposes a new one- year cooling-off period, until early next week. But with the Bill no longer guaranteed a place in the Queen's Speech, ministers set about the delicate task of constructing a rationale for shelving a measure already approved without dissent in Cabinet.
Ministers pointed to last week's Cabinet decision to make the agreed programme subject to review in the light of extra measures needed as a result of the public expenditure settlement. A social security Bill - possibly to cut single parents' benefit - is expected among other measures to enact spending cuts.
Authoritative sources in Westminster suggested that if such measures were to be enacted, the divorce Bill would be a prime candidate to be dropped.
Lord Mackay and his supporters insist that the Bill, which would end the two-year wait for uncontested divorces and five years for contested ones, would not make divorce easier. They say it would remove much of the harrowing aggravation of disputes over family and property and place an added emphasis on mediation.
Even some ministers who accept these arguments were suggesting last night that it might still be better to ditch the Bill rather than depend on Labour support in a free vote.
Another alternative being suggested was that the Bill could be substantially amended to meet Tory objections. John Redwood, the former Welsh Secretary and now a leading figure on the backbench right, suggested the legislation would be an "own goal" and that it should be amended to retain the concept of fault, the one-year cooling-off period and mediation. The Bill could then be whipped, so that it passed through the House without recourse to a free vote.
The main consolation for the Lord Chancellor last night was that he secured ministerial approval for amendments to the Family Homes and Domestic Bill - which is also under attack from the Tory right. These are designed to ensure it receives Royal Assent next week provided Labour agrees to the changes.
The amendments would limit to 12 months the duration of orders allowing common law wives to continue occupying a home owned by a violent partner and would provide for specific guidelines to confine use of the measure to cases of domestic violence and harm to children.
If the divorce Bill does fall, Labour is likely to charge that the retreat would be further evidence of the Tory "lurch to the right" which it is claiming Mr Major has made in return for party unity.
The accusation was at the centre of angry exchanges in the Commons yesterday.
Tony Blair, the Labour leader, urged the Prime Minister to "stop pandering to the right wing of the Conservative Party".
Mr Major scornfully declared that "the centre right of politics is our ground."
He added: "There is no way a squatter like you will be able to rest on it."Reuse content