TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Major steps up bid to win over wavering MPs

Prime Minister's campaign: Pro-Europeans cheered over single currency and right-wingers wooed with anti-Heseltine message
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John Major stepped up his charm offensive yesterday, conducting a lobbying blitz on the Commons terrace and in private meetings, while bidding to win over potential abstainers at a packed meeting of pro-European MPs.

Mr Major followed up what MPs called a bravura performance at Prime Minister's questions with an enthusiastically received exposition of his opt-out policy on the single currency at a 60-strong meeting of the Positive Europeans group of Tory backbenchers.

The Prime Minister also used a tour of the terrace and a renewed series of meetings with MPs to press his message home. A number of undecided MPs have requested meetings, which Mr Major is working steadily through.

"The principal message is that he is the only man who can unite the party and lead it to the next election," MPs were reporting.

Norma Major earlier paid a visit to her husband's Cowley Street campaign team, which has nominated a group of MPs - including ministers David Davis, William Hague and Ann Widdecombe, Government whip Michael Neubert, and backbenchers Sir Donald Thompson and Robert Hughes - to canvass lists of MPs.

Each has a blue folder containing the names to be ticked off. James Cran, the MP for Beverley, and former minister Sir Archie Hamilton, are targeting right-wingers, arguing that a vote against the Prime Minister could lead to an eventual Michael Heseltine victory.

Mr Major is spreading his net as widely as possible in the bid to stop Euro-sceptics supporting Mr Redwood and tactical voting by pro-Heseltine MPs. The Major campaign is also acutely aware of the need to take nothing for granted among members of the so-called "payroll" vote of ministers and parliamentary private secretaries. It was defections from this group that helped to bring down Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

But there was heavy embarrassment for the Major camp too as one of its team spectacularly broke ranks with the Cowley Street line on whether the Prime Minister would reconsider his position next Tuesday if he won but was badly wounded.

Sir Andrew Bowden, the MP for Brighton Kemptown, said that Mr Major would have to secure votes from at least three-quarters of the parliamentary party, otherwise "he would have to shut his door, put an ice pack on his head" and decide. Sir Andrew added that there were at least 100 MPs who were still undecided. He wanted colleagues to face up to the "actual realities of withholding their votes" and opening up the contest to other contenders.

"It could even be worse than that," Sir Andrew added. "If people were, on whatever scale, for ulterior motives, to withhold their votes it could disrupt the party in such a way that it might even lead to an early general election and the elimination of the Conservative Party at the polls."

Ringing the mood changes as the day went on, and in contrast to the music-hall atmosphere of the Commons floor, Mr Major used a 45-minute discussion with the Positive Europeans for a painstaking discussion of details of his European policy.

Amid enthusiastic table-thumping and shouts of "hear hear", Mr Major raised the practical issues of some European Union members moving to monetary union and Britain staying out.

One such effect might be a two-tier system of structural funds, Mr Major suggested. Emphasising his wait-and-see approach he declared that Britain was a "a major European power, which must exert pressure", while ruling out the currency now would hamper the City of London's ability to remain a premier financial centre. They were "the tip of the iceberg" of a large number of practical problems that would be discussed in forthcoming meetings with President Jacques Chirac of France, he said.

Ray Whitney, the group's chairman, said afterwards: "He gave us the sort of assurances we want on the position on Europe."

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