Abstentions will be used to force second vote

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Supporters of Michael Heseltine plan to abstain in next week's first round between John Major and John Redwood in an attempt to allow the President of the Board of Trade to enter the contest on a second ballot.

Confirmation of the strategy came amid counter-briefings by some MPs that the "Heselteenies" had not done enough to prevent a haemorrhage of support to Mr Major, making a second round less likely.

While Mr Major's campaign insisted Mr Redwood's entry had only served to improve Mr Major's chances, MPs confirmed that Heseltine campaigners had been actively canvassing. There were also strong denials from the Heseltine camp of suggestions that Mr Heseltine had advised them not to abstain but to actively support Mr Major.

A Major campaigner conceded that if a second ballot occurred without Mr Major, support for Mr Heseltine would rocket and help him to win. A number of Mr Major's campaign aides are still advising him to go into the second round, even if he is damaged by votes for Mr Redwood and abstentions.

The Major camp has been emboldened by the support of prominent Europhiles such as Hugh Dykes, MP for Harrow East, and was downplaying the level of Heselteenies who would abstain, putting it at between 15 and 24. The hard-core figure is put at about 30, but Heseltine campaigners make it higher.

Emma Nicholson, a Heselteenie in 1990, also offered unreserved support for Mr Major yesterday, telling MPs at Prime Minister's questions that her constituency association had asked her to vote for him.

For all the arguments over the figures, however, there appeared to be little change in the predictions of the number of votes - at least 120, or more - not likely to be cast for the Prime Minister, assuming a significant number of 80 or so Euro-sceptics either vote for John Redwood or abstain.