In an unexpectedly brutal show of authority which delighted party managers, Mr Major pre-empted widely-trailed demands from the 92 Group for the promotion of right-wingers by making it clear Cabinet reshuffles were a matter for himself alone.
He compounded the embarrassment of the delegation, led by Sir George Gardiner, by making it clear that given the advance leaks of the meeting it would be better if they met at another time and without prior announcement. No date had been fixed by last night.
Mr Major's decisive treatment of the delegation, word of which was spread rapidly through the Commons after details were given to the whips by Graham Bright, the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary, left a politically wounded Sir George facing a possible spring challenge to his chairmanship of the leading back-bench faction on the right of the party. Sir George lost his post on the executive of the 1922 Committee last November. The move came as Cabinet ministers started to clear the decks for a probable announcement tomorrow of pay awards for public servants covered by six review bodies.
Ministers are expected to sanction awards of up to a little over 3 per cent to 740,000 NHS medical staff, but health authorities and hospitals will be expected to fund rises from savings and efficiencies.
Sir George said yesterday in a prepared statement that all those present had 'agreed that in the light of unfounded press speculation our meeting should be deferred'.
However, Sir George - who said the delegation had sat in 'easy chairs' for the brief meeting in the Prime Minister's office - admitted that John Major had made it clear that reshuffles were the Prime Minister's prerogative. Both sides at the meeting agreed that Mr Major had told the group that his door was 'always open' but this was not the time for such a meeting.
A widely-trailed list of demands canvassed by leading members of the 92 Group had included spending cuts and a commitment never to rejoin the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
But two prominent women on the steering comittee of the 92 Group, Dame Jill Knight and Marion Roe, refused to attend the meeting with Mr Major, apparently because of deep unease about its purpose. Neither would comment last night.
MPs on the left and centre of the party reacted gleefully to Mr Major's treatment of Sir George's delegation last night. Emma Nicholson, MP for Devon West and Torridge, said: 'They didn't even get a cup of tea. That shows the way (the Prime Minister) treats the 92 Group when they attempt to hold him to ransom.'
But MPs on the right of the party also reacted warmly to the rebuff. David Evans, a member of the 1922 executive and a member of the 92 Group, congratulated Mr Major on effectively telling the deputation to 'bugger off'. He said: 'We have seen another side of John Major today.' He said the group had been 'put in their place', adding: 'What right has Sir George to tell the Prime Minister who should or should not be in his Cabinet?'
Sir Jerry Wiggin, another prominent member of the 100-strong 92 Group, also expressed concern at the move by Sir George and predicted that the '92 will meet and see where we go from here'.
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