Tories square up for 1922 vote: Attack on right could backfire Test of loyalty could backfire

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TONIGHT'S key elections for control of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee could see only a marginal shift to the left. This is despite the efforts of the Mainstream group of MPs to present an attack on the right as a test of loyalty to John Major, write Patricia Wynn Davies and Colin Brown.

Thatcherite Tory MPs warned that the attempt to remove right-wing 92 Group members from the committee executive would backfire, making the Prime Minister's position less, rather than more, secure.

The Mainstream coalition of 'wet' Lollards, pro-Europeans and a few deserters from the right has targeted five right-wing executive members as 'disloyal' to Mr Major because of their repeated rebellions during the Maastricht Bill.

The five include Sir George Gardiner, the MP for Reigate and chairman of the right-wing 92 Group of MPs; and John Townend, who as chairman of the backbench finance committee has also criticised government economic policy.

Because loyalty has been made the issue, some MPs fear that failure to defeat figures such as Sir George will be seen as a blow to Mr Major's leadership. There have also been subtle warnings that defeating right-wingers would leave them freer to attack government policy on a broader front.

Sir George has claimed that moderates want control in order to persuade the Prime Minister to take a softer line on European union. Amid furious last- minute canvassing yesterday, there was a growing belief that he would not be easily ousted. Despite the attendance of right-wing MPs at Mainstream's inaugural dinner a fortnight ago, by last weekend its campaign was beginning to fray at the edges.

One senior right-winger said yesterday: 'I have been telling colleagues that this is no longer about personalities; it's about whether or not we sell out on Europe.'

All 12 current members of the executive are standing for re-election in the secret ballot. A key factor will be the attitude of the new intake of MPs, many of whom helped the right secure control of the 1922 and other backbench committees last year.