A meeting of the 92 Group - the main right and centre-right grouping of Conservatives backbenchers - expressed anger at the Prime Minister's reported threat to call a general election if he loses the Maastricht Bill. One MP dubbed it 'childish', and there was strong support for a free vote next week if the Prime Minister insists on a substantive motion.
Sir George Gardiner, the group's chairman saw Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, for more than half an hour last night, telling him there was 'universal dismay' at any idea of threatening the party with a general election.
Some 60 MPs attended the meeting. According to those present, about 30 spoke, nine backing the Prime Minister's wish to bring the Bill back before Christmas. Most, however, demanded that the Government postpone it until the New Year.
MPs accused the Government of being out of touch, one saying that with the spending round coming, not to mention the council tax, 'it is going to be difficult enough to hold the party together - without a civil war (over Maastricht) that could go on for months and months'.
Winston Churchill, MP for Davyhulme, said the MPs were very concerned. 'They don't see the urgency, particularly coming so quickly after last week's debacle (over coal).'
Several MPs, including some who did not join the 22 who voted against the Second Reading of the Maastricht Bill in May, reportedly said they would vote against the Government if it produced a substantive motion next week to bring the Bill back.
One said the meeting reflected anger among the right that they had done much to elect Mr Major as leader, but that he was now listening to Europhile voices in the Cabinet. 'Major is relying very heavily on support from people who did not support him in the leadership campaign,' one said.
Sir George was greeted with calls of 'hear, hear' when he said he hoped 'that John Major's leadership would survive this trauma'. But one MP said the support for the Prime Minister was there 'if only on the basis that there is nobody else'.
The meeting had been called to discuss 'the state of the party' even before the coal closures were announced. MPs said morale in the constituencies was at rock bottom. 'People can't understand what the Government is about,' one officer of the group said. 'It is widely perceived as incompetent'.
Some MPs argued that a free vote next week on a substantive motion to bring the Maastricht Bill back would give Mr Major a majority with Labour backing. But there is little chance of a free vote, because ratification of the treaty is a central manifesto commitment.
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