In one of his most impressive showings in Parliament since taking office in 1990, Mr Major appeared to have injected momentum into his re-election campaign. He delighted MPs with a series of quick-witted exchanges and went on to treat a 60-strong meeting of pro-European MPs with what one of called a "swashbuckling" performance. His campaigners hope this will eat into potential support for Michael Heseltine.
In a further move welcomed by Major backers, the backbench 1922 Committee endorsed plans to rule out a further contest in November and to examine possible rule changes to curb the party's power to oust a sitting prime minister.
But the uphill struggle Mr Major still faces was underlined last night by a MORI poll in the Economist suggesting that as leader, Mr Heseltine could save as many as 52 threatened marginal seats for the Tories. The poll showed that by replacing Mr Major with Mr Heseltine, the Conservatives would cut Labour's lead by five points.
And in a BBC Radio interview, a leading backbench supporter of Mr Major, Sir Andrew Bowden, appeared to expose a debate within the Major camp about how large a victory he needs to stay in office.
Ministers have consistently argued in public that by whatever margin Mr Major wins under the rules, which require the victor to secure 50 per cent of the vote and be 50 votes ahead of his challenger, he will remain in office. But Sir Andrew shocked MPs by saying that he would need a "very substantial majority" and "at least three-quarters" of the parliamentary party to be politically safe.
While declaring that for Mr Major to depart could mean "the elimination of the Conservative Party in the polls", Sir Andrew went on to suggest that if he got less of the vote he would "want to consider his position very carefully".
It was immediately said on behalf of Mr Major's team that Sir Andrew was not in the inner campaign team and had been expressing a highly personal view. Sir Andrew's interview was all the more remarkable since Mr Redwood and Mr Portillo, whose supporters were put on the defensive last week by reports of their campaign plans, appeared to acknowledge that a victory by the narrowest of margins would be enough for Mr Major. Mr Portillo said Mr Major would secure a "handsome victory". And he added unequivocally: "Here is a contest that has rules. If you win by the rules you are the winner."
Asked by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, about Mr Redwood's challenge, the Prime Minister said to laughter on both sides of the House that the former Secretary of State for Wales had left because he was "devastated" at Mr Major's own resignation as party leader.
Despite the hint in Sir Andrew's remarks - dismissed by sources authorised to speak for Mr Major - that Mr Redwood will not even have to approach the margin required under rules to precipitate a second ballot, the Redwood camp argued that supporters of the two undeclared rivals could not be sure of a second ballot without ensuring an impressive Redwood tally. David Evans, Mr Redwood's campaign manager, said yesterday: "All the people talking about a second ballot are in cloud-cuckoo land. Tuesday is the day of the choice."
The call for direct support also partly reflected uncertainty among Heseltine supporters over whether to abstain or vote for Mr Redwood in a determined effort to secure a second ballot, or to support Mr Major, as they are officially urging MPs to do, in order to see off the challenge from the right.Reuse content