The nine Tory rebels are threatening to abstain next week in a vote provoked by Labour over Spanish fishing rights in British waters. The Government is expected to avoid defeat but the rebellion will be a set-back for Mr Major's renewed efforts to unite the party.
It is now certain that the rebel MPs will not be offered the Tory whip until next month. The renewed dissent occurred as the Prime Minister called his senior ministers to a seminar at Chequers to review long-term defence and foreign policy.
"The Prime Minister has been feeling a bit more confident since Christmas, and feels able to take a long range look at things, but this is very irritating," said one party source.
The Government had been planning an offensive against Tony Blair's plans for devolution. In a further effort to focus the party on attacking Labour, Mr Major has asked Tory policy groups to begin work on the election manifesto.
Ministers were angered by BBC reports that at least five of the rebels could be brought back within the next fortnight after they toed the party line in a Commons vote last week. That was seen as a signal that the five - Nicholas Budgen, Sir Teddy Taylor, John Wilkinson, Richard Shepherd and Sir Richard Bodywere - were ready to return to the Conservative whip.
Some of the five last night indicated they would abstain in next week's vote as part of their campaign against European policy.
Chequers meeting, page 2
Devolution onslaught, page 4Reuse content