"They might as well close the House now. Nobody is interested in the business," one Labour backbencher said.
As Michael Heseltine held a routine meeting at the Department of Trade and Industry, John Major held his surprise press conference on the lawn at Downing Street. Thirty minutes later, the President of the Board of Trade appeared fleetingly in the crowded members' lobby looking preoccupied. He has looked preoccupied before.
Sources close to Mr Heseltine said he had "no intention of standing against Mr Major". It was similar to a denial Mr Heseltine made in 1990.
Norman Lamont, tipped by many as a strong stalking-horse candidate, appeared in the members' lobby. Pursued by journalists, the former Chancellor waved away questions about his intentions and ran for the exit. Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, who will help to run Mr Major's election campaign, was confident his man would win. "He made the decision relatively recently. He has decided rightly to face these issues. I think it is characteristic of the sort of leadership he has given over the years."
Although Mr Major's critics appeared stunned into silence, they did not take long to gather their thoughts. Teresa Gorman, said: "It is a calculated bluff on the part of the Whips. I think it is possibly the only opportunity that we will have of making it clear to the British people that we have a candidate that will put Britain first not Brussels. If we don't get that changed, we will be stuck with European policies for the next decade."
Tony Blair, the Labour leader, said Mr Major's decision was a "sign of desperation" and showed his party "are utterly unfit to govern". Regardless of the outcome of the leadership contest, Mr Blair said, "divisions will still remain and only the country will be the loser".
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This is Mr Major's last desperate attempt to break out of the prison into which his party and his weakness have trapped him."
The former prime minister, Baroness Thatcher, offered her unique brand of support. Speaking from Paris she said: "I think it is a good thing that he did this, it shows that he cares." Asked if Mr Major would win, she replied that no Cabinet minister would stand against Mr Major, but after a pause, she added "... in the first ballot".
However, Mr Major's heavyweight supporters eventually raised their voices. "It's a brave step by a brave man and I think a necessary step too," Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said arriving for a meeting in Luxembourg. Sir Norman Fowler, the former Conservative Party chairman, said: "Minorities have recently dominated the debate, now it's time for the majority in Parliament to speak and they will speak for Mr Major."
"I think John has taken a very sensible and courageous decision. He has my wholehearted support," Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, said. And the man who will assist Mr Mawhinney with Mr Major's campaign, Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, said: "He has the support of all Cabinet members."
The pro-Major line-up continued with Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, and the man to whom Mr Major tendered his resignation, who said : "He has done what is right. He has our total support." Jeremy Hanley, the Conservative Party chairman, also praised the Prime Minister's courage. "He is acting in both the party's and the country's interest," he said.
The ultra-loyalist, Tristan Garel-Jones, said that it was now up to the party to show it was capable of government, while Nicholas Soames, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, said the agitation against Mr Major had been "pure madness".
In the Lords, Tory ministers sent a message backing Mr Major. Their statement read: "As your ministers in the Lords, we wish to record our confidence in the outstanding leadership shown by you since taking office as Prime Minister in 1990. We note, with complete understanding but with regret, the reasons why it is necessary for you to resign and offer yourself immediately for re-election by the Commons.We offer you every support for your re-election."
The resignation of Mr Major created few ripples in Buckingham Palace. "There were no immediate constitutional implications," the palace said.Reuse content