The Government is now likely to face questions about the cost to the taxpayer of bringing ministers back to the Commons for the vote. Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, and Tory backbencher Alan Duncan returned to Britain on the Prime Minister's plane for the vote.
Jerry Hayes, the Tory MP for Harlow, was also in the Commons to vote with the Government within hours of winning a vote of confidence from his constituency party after the allegations of a gay affair with a researcher, which he denied.
The party could have made Mr Major's hopes of surviving until an election on 1 May more difficult if it had deselected Mr Hayes. But with his wife standing by him, Mr Hayes was backed by his constituency executive.
The Government defeated a Labour amendment to the second reading 322- 287, a majority of 35. Labour leaders had been playing down the threat of a defeat, and had allowed some of their MPs to stay away. John Prescott, the deputy leader, left yesterday for a long-planned official visit to China and Hong Kong.
A defeat would have forced a no- confidence vote, and a possible early election if the Government had lost. But with the Ulster Unionists not voting against the Government, the Prime Minister was assured of a big margin.
Earlier, he had told journalists accompanying his visit that he was confident of overhauling Labour's 20-point lead in the polls and he wanted to "play it long". Asked what would change the public mood in his favour, he replied: "Events, reality, politics and a campaign."
Dismissing Tony Blair's challenge over his style of leadership as a campaign issue, he said: "Well, it is the politics of insults, isn't it? Leadership is about what actually is achieved. The essence of it is that if he doesn't want to talk about policy - you can always be sure they don't want to talk about policy - they wheel out Tony Blair, John Prescott or Brian Wilson in order to abuse. Well, I don't think that will wash with the British electorate."
Mr Wilson, a Labour campaign coordinator, found Mr Major's reference to him "very flattering". He added: "I've always taken the view that if it isn't hurting, it isn't working."
Some left-wing Labour MPs and minor opposition parties opposed the second reading of the Bill in spite of a Labour front-bench decision not to vote against the tax cuts. The move was defeated by 314 votes to 30, a government majority of 284.
With pairing officially suspended because of a row over cheating in a vote before Christmas, the Government was forced to bring all its available troops into the House for the vote. On Monday night it suspended the passage of its Crime (Sentences) Bill after complaining of a Labour filibuster. The Leader of the House, Tony Newton, said it will be brought back to the Commons today for the final stages, postponing the passage of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill.Reuse content