PM's destiny poised on a knife edge

Key defections deal late blow to Major campaign
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The Independent Online
John Major was deserted last night by two of the most prominent leaders of right-wing Tory backbench opinion amid signs that he is still far from assured of the decisive victory his campaigners have been seeking in tonight's leadership vote.

In a fresh blow to the Prime Minister's re-election campaign, Sir George Gardiner, chairman of the right-wing 92 group, and John Townend, chairman of the party's backbench finance committee, will today publicly declare their support for Mr Major's challenger, John Redwood. In a further indication of ebbing support for the Prime Minister, the pro-Conservative Daily Mail today calls for his removal as party leader.

The still finely balanced fate of Mr Major's premiership could yet be in the hands of anywhere between 40 and 90 potential abstainers who were the subject of intensive personal lobbying by both candidates throughout yesterday.

But the move by Sir George and Mr Townend is likely to encourage supporters of Michael Portillo to back Mr Redwood in the hope of forcing a fresh ballot open to potential leadership rivals currently in the Cabinet. In addition, there were strong signs last night of a move among supporters of a Michael Heseltine leadership - despite firm orders from the President of the Board of Trade not to campaign except for Mr Major - to persuade other pro-Heseltine colleagues to abstain in the hoping of forcing a fresh ballot.

The rebuff for Mr Major was made all the more pointed for being disclosed after both candidates had last night made 30-minute pitches for support from the 92 group.

Sir George told colleagues that he is backing Mr Redwood partly because he wants to see a fresh ballot "above all" and advised his colleagues not to abstain. Mr Townend said: "I have made my decision after hearing both candidates tonight and I believe that John Redwood is more likely to pursue cuts in tax and public spending between now and the election."

Mr Major used the 92 group hustings meeting to cast himself as the champion of a "low-tax and small-state" Britain. And he sought to reassure waverers flirting with abstention or support for Mr Redwood that he was committed to more privatisation, further reforms of education and health, and to "keep pushing back the frontiers of the state". He strongly defended his decision to keep Britain's options open on a single currency and said there were some principles he would rather leave Downing Street than abandon.

Mr Major lunched in the Commons with half a dozen targeted backbenchers before seeing a further two dozen - many of them individually in his room in the Commons. He told Channel 4 News last night that he had "not a shred of doubt" that he had taken the right decision by resigning his leadership and inviting a challenge. On BBC television news he said he believed it had "exorcised the split" in the party. He said he wanted to lead a "broad- based" party from the centre right.

The Major camp's hopes were bolstered by a report to the 1922 Committee executive of soundings taken with all constituency chairmen, Euro-MPs and peers. Sir Basil Feldman, chairman of the party's National Union, told the committee that only about 20 constituencies were backing Mr Redwood.

Despite continued expressions of confidence in the Major camp, optimistic claims in the Redwood campaign put the former Secretary of State for Wales's vote at 70 or more. If there were 50 or more abstentions, that could mean that Mr Major will have difficulty in taking his own vote over the 200 mark.