Soames in the firing line over 'reshuffle plot'

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Right-wing Tory MPs have mounted a "stop Soames" campaign to stop the defence minister being promoted to the Cabinet in a reshuffle of ministerial ranks.

The right wing is furious over allegations going the rounds at Westminster that one of Nicholas Soames's supporters last week leaked details of a letter which effectively scuppered the chances of David Davis gaining promotion.

Mr Davis - a Euro-sceptic who had a key role in the EU non-cooperation policy - was in line to replace Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, until it was disclosed he had written to John Major threatening to resign unless he was promoted in the reshuffle. The right claims the aim of the leak was to block Mr Davis, and to leave the way open for Mr Soames.

Mr Soames, who is totally loyal to the Prime Minister, would be able to assuage the anger of the farmers and Britain's European partners, but Tory Euro-sceptics regard him as too "wet" and are keen to keep him out of the Cabinet.

Mr Major is expected to reshuffle the ranks next week to freshen the team that will go into the general election and replace ministers who have asked to stand down, including Tim Eggar, the energy minister, and Steven Norris, the minister for transport in London.

Mr Major yesterday played down speculation that Mr Hogg would be sacked, but Tories still believe he could be moved sideways to become Attorney General. Some senior Conservatives want Mr Major to recall Jonathan Aitken, after having his name cleared after a select committee "sleaze" inquiry.

There has also been a whispering campaign against George Gardiner over his threat to resign his seat if he loses the selection meeting in his Reigate constituency.

"Peter Lilley, Nicholas Lyell, Hartley Booth and Cyril Townsend have all faced reselection without threatening to resign," said one Tory MP.

Mr Hogg faces fresh embarrassment next week when he walks into the "lions' den" with the farmers at the Royal Show. While there, he will also play host to Franz Fischler, the European Commissioner responsible for agriculture, who had the job of imposing the ban on British beef exports. Some Tories were privately predicting they would both need "tin hats" to protect them from the backlash of farmers, still fuming over the loss of their business.

Whitehall sources said Mr Hogg may yet ask Mr Major for a move. "He is an honourable man, and may feel that his credibility has been culled along with the cows," said one official.

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