If Peter Thurnham, MP for Bolton North-East, goes ahead with his threat - and party managers were downbeat about the chances of dissuading him last night - the Government's majority would be down to two. At least three other Tory MPs have expressed concern about the Scott Report and refused to commit themselves to backing the Government in a vote expected a week tomorrow.
Labour now believes it has a real chance of victory in such a vote, though much depends on the Ulster Unionists. "Two Tories could be all we need," one senior source said.
Mr Thurnham's move took Cabinet ministers by surprise. The Prime Minister has agreed to meet Mr Thurnham this week to discuss his concerns. Other ministers, including Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, offered him talks on Scott.
Mr Thurnham is likely to sitas an Independent Conservative; while he would not cross the floor of the House, he has indicated he could not be relied upon by the Government in a confidence vote. If Mr Thurnham resigned the party whip, and voted with Labour, the Government's majority would fall from four to two, and would then almost certainly drop again to one after the Staffordshire South-East by-election.
In a statement, Mr Thurnham said he was "increasingly concerned about falling values and standards of public service in the Conservative party and the performance of the Government". He added that the "Scott Report and the way the Government responded have only added to my dissatisfaction", and concluded that the "modern Conservative party is divided, and failing to fulfil public expectations".
Senior Conservatives, however, believe that Mr Thurnham is aggrieved mainly because he has not been selected to fight the safe Westmorland seat at the next election. His existing seat has a Tory majority of only 185 and boundary changes are likely to reduce further Mr Thurnham's chances of holding it.
Nick Brown, Labour's deputy chief whip, said: "I know for a fact that Peter Thurnham is not alone in his misgivings among Conservative MPs." More than half a dozen, he said, were "carefully considering" Scott.
Tory MPs who have failed to commit themselves to backing the Government in a vote on Scott include Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, Rupert Allason (Torbay) and Quentin Davies, (Stamford and Spalding). Mr Davies yesterday would not commit himself to backing the Government, saying: "It [Scott] is a serious document and it deserves to be taken seriously by the House of Commons and to be read seriously."
The Ulster Unionists may offer a free vote to their MPs. Their chief whip, Martin Smyth, said it would not be fair for the Government "to presume anything".
n An NOP poll in today's Sunday Times shows that 64 per cent of those questioned think Mr Waldegrave should resign, and 62 per cent think Sir Nicholas Lyell should quit.
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