Supporters of Sir George rallied round him to show that the 92 Group remained independent of the influence of the whips. However, they also made it clear in private that they expected him to stand down next year. 'He's damaged goods,' a friend said.
Supporters of his challenger, Sir Anthony Durant, a former Government whip, said the contest had checked Sir George's power to use the 92 Group, named after 92 Cheyne Walk where it used to meet. One of his critics in the group said: 'It's given him a kicking. We've shaken him up.'
Sir George was targeted after reports that the leadership of the 92 Group intended to warn Mr Major to get a grip on the Government. Mr Major showed the MPs the door after a meeting lasting two minutes.
Government sources denied yesterday that the result was a rebuff for Mr Major.
Sir George has helped to widen the influence of the group by running a slate of right-wing candidates for the Tory backbench committees. As a result, key members of the 92 Group are frequently used to represent backbench opinion in the media.
His use of a 'slate' appalled some Tory traditionalists who regarded it as a lowering of Conservative standards, like 'gentlemen versus players', more akin to the Labour party. Some Major loyalists also targeted Sir George for rebelling last year against the Maastricht treaty.
John Townend was returned as Secretary, and the members elected unopposed to the steering committee were: Bob Dunn, James Pawsey, Dame Jill Knight, Vivian Bendall and Graham Riddick, who replaced Marion Roe.