The Maastricht Debate: Waverers met with more subtle methods: The Whips: Ministers and MPs are brought in from sick beds to take part in vital vote

THE SIGNAL that the Government was in trouble came at 7.55pm when Michael Heseltine, recovering from a heart attack, was taken from his London home for the knife-edge votes in the Commons, writes Colin Brown.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, suffering from an intestinal illness, was later brought to the Commons in an ambulance to be 'nodded through' by one of the Government whips.

Labour also was forced to bring two of its backbenchers from their sick beds. Bob Parry, the MP for Liverpool Riverside, recovering from a quadruple heart by-pass operation, and Rachel Squire, the MP for Dunfirmline West, who is recovering from illness, were brought down for the vote.

The Government whips rushed around the corridors pressing wavering Tories to support the Government. But they abandoned their 'thumb screws' for vintage claret. Leading up to the Prime Minister's appeal for party unity, the whips worked hard all day on their lists of Tory MPs known to be unhappy about passing the Maastricht Bill. Toby Jessel, who had voted against the Government during the passage of the Bill, was escorted by one of the whips to see Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, in his room off the members' chamber. Seconds later, another whip rushed into the room with a bottle of claret. 'They are using more subtle pressure this time,' one rebel organiser said.

The Prime Minister, who had met some waverers in one-to-one meetings, applied more pressure in his speech to the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs. It failed to persuade the die-hards but it impressed some Thatcherites who have proved a thorn in John Major's side. 'It was Thatcheresque,' one rightwinger said. 'He said we needed to return to classic Tory principles.

'He didn't indulge in the babyish talk about his leadership being on the line, which we had last time. Most of us feel we've had enough of Maastricht. It's like food, wine and sex. You get tired of it.'

Frank Dobson, a member of the Shadow Cabinet, accused the whips of scraping the pork barrel. 'We have heard the Tories have channelled parliamentary consultancies through the whips office so they are handed out to those on whom the whips smile. This could mean pounds 5,000 or pounds 10,000 bonuses for loyalty. There could also be knighthoods in the New Year's Honours.'

The whips did not pressurise the die-hard rebels, although some were amused to hear that David Lightbown, an assistant whip, had told Bill Cash, a leading anti-Maastricht campaigner, 'You're in with some dodgy people'.

(Photograph omitted)