The remarks came as one of the nine Euro rebels without the whip launched a blistering attack on the Prime Minister and a fresh call for a referendum on Europe. Michael Cartiss, MP for Great Yarmouth, railed against Mr Major for suggesting that the nine should put party unity first and accused the Government of breaking manifesto pledges to curb Euro-spending.
But Mr Major has served notice in a newspaper interview today that restoration of the party whip to the nine is "not imminent'' and that they will stay suspended until they have proved their support for the Government.
The Prime Minister told a private reception at Conservative Central Office that the party could rule out an early general election. He was later said by Tory officials to have made his 1997 prophesy in a "lighthearted'' fashion and to have been speaking in a context in which he had jocularly reassured party workers facing an all-time low in Tory popularity that he was not planning an early contest.
Mr Major's remarks came in a speech in which he said it would be ironic if the Tories got the economy right but allowed their opponents to reap the political benefit.
He has meanwhile emphasised that it would be "months'' before he would consider the readmission of the nine "whipless'' Euro-rebels to the fold.
He told the Financial Times: "In due course one can consider whether they should be readmitted to the whip. But it is not imminent at all; they must show that they are in the business of supporting the Government.''
However, there were more signs of stalemate yesterday as Euro-sceptic backbenchers sought to up the ante by demanding that Mr Major campaign against a single European currency.
Mr Major says in his interview that he suspects that there will be no serious constitutional change at the 1996 Inter-governmental Conference on the future of the Union. "I do not expect to come back with anything that requires a referendum,'' but adds that the referendum option should be held in reserve. He suggests, however, that there would be a stronger case for a plebiscite on a single currency.