Threat to Major could be blocked by MPs

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Political Editor

Sharp differences have emerged within the Tory Party over whether rule changes which could make it impossible for John Major to be challenged again as Tory leader are desirable; proposals are to be examined by leading backbenchers.

Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the 1922 committee, confirmed yesterday it was planning to re-examine the rules. A small sub-committee of senior officers of the committee is expected to be set up shortly to examine the procedures for electing party leaders.

But as Sir Marcus warned in a BBC Radio interview yesterday that the committee would not reach a hasty decision, it became clear that the committee executive is divided over whether a further change in the rules is desirable.

At least one member of the executive is expected to argue that the present system, under which a leader can be challenged from within his own party whether or not he is an elected Prime Minister, should be radically reformed. But other members of the committee, particularly on the party's right wing, are highly sceptical of the desirability of a rule change which they believe could simply be a manoeuvre to eliminate any possibility of an 11th-hour challenge to Mr Major before the general election.

Sir Marcus acknowledged that a further challenge in 1996 was theoretically possible, but said he was sure one would not take place because it would be "ludicrous" for the party to split in the run-up to a general election. He said: "There is a case about whether it is right that when we are in government, we should have a challenge every year to the Prime Minister when he is in office.

"The feeling among some is that it's quite different when you are in opposition. But in government, it's confusing, to put it mildly, and debilitating [to have a leadership contest]."

Sir Marcus has been briefed by his predecessor Sir Cranley Onslow on the issues examined by the 1922 Committee executive when it changed the rules for leadership contests after the fall of Baroness Thatcher in 1990. At present, 10 per cent of the parliamentary party must notify the 1922 chairman that they want a contest.

The insistence of Sir Marcus and at least one senior colleague that the examination would not be hurried, makes it possible the rules could remain intact until after the election.