'What on earth is he trying to do - maximise the vote against him?' one pro-Maastricht minister said. If there is a clear strategy behind the threats, it is that Mr Major is calculating that he will be rescued by the spineless tendency among the Tory rebels threatening to vote against the Government in the division lobbies on 4 November.
As a former whip who had to see off the rebellions by the wets under Margaret Thatcher between 1983 and 1985, Mr Major knows Tory rebels are not as tough as they seem.
At the core of the rebellion are 22 Tory MPs who voted against the Government on the second reading of the Maastricht treaty. It is likely they will remain unwaveringly opposed, but they would not be enough to defeat the Government, if the Liberal Democrats vote with the Government.
A BBC survey found 26 who would now vote against the Government. A member of the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs said: 'There are between 30 and 50 who will vote against the Government.' But one leading rebel said yesterday: 'We all know that Tory rebellions are like snow in summer. Some of it never touches the ground.'
About 30 Tory MPs who threatened to vote against the Government over pit closures failed to do so last week, after the Cabinet conceded a review. They include four anti-Maastricht rebels: Michael Carttiss (Great Yarmouth), Bill Cash (Stafford), John Carlisle (Luton North) and Tony Marlow (Northampton North), plus Roger Knapman (Stroud) who abstained on the second reading of the Maastricht Bill.
Mr Carlisle said yesterday: 'I will vote as I did on the second reading against the Government . . . I don't think a general election will be necessary, if there was a vote of confidence and a new leader, the Conservative Party would come back together. But . . . if we have to have an election, so be it. I will fight it on the basis of remaining British.'
Another rebel who voted against the Government on the Second Reading of the Maastricht Bill, Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston) said: 'I am most certainly going to oppose.'
Sir Norman Fowler, the chairman of the party, warned the rebels on BBC radio they were 'playing with fire'. He said: 'It is frankly just plain naive to think that everyone will pat each other on the shoulder after the vote, have a vote of confidence the next day, and everything gets back to normal and everything is hunky dory. That is just naive politics.'Reuse content