As ministers showed no sign of a move to readmit the Euro-rebels, one prominent among them, Nick Budgen, the MP for Wolverhampton South West, yesterday went so far as to suggest that they were being denied the whip to save John Major from a leadership challenge.
Whitehall sources yesterday emphasised that the forthcoming Green Paper on ID cards would not put forward a "preferred option", and would be followed by a long consultation period. There was no certainty of legislation this side of the general election.
The rebels expressed "concern" that the Government's apparent conversion to some form of ID card was coming at a time when there were fears "regarding the maintenance of our border controls".
The Government has consistently maintained there is no connection between the two issues, that an ID card would be for domestic purposes only and that Mr Major will do all that is necessary to ensure that border controls are maintained.
But it was clear that with at least two of the rebels, including Mr Budgen and John Wilkinson, actually in favour of ID cards, last night's statement was drafted to fall well short of an all-out denunciation. It said that if the Government succeeded in making an informal declaration on Britain's right to maintain border controls legally enforceable, "this would enable the issue of ID cards to be considered on its merits".
But there was no sign of any respite in the stand-off between ministers and the rebels. Some rebels believe the Government wants to be able to blame them for the expected losses in the forthcoming local government elections. And Government business managers were said to be sticking to their demand that loyal voting behaviour would be needed over the next few weeks to justify readmission.
Mr Budgen - one of those who has voted with the Government in at least two controversial divisions - told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think there is a possibility that there may be an attempt to remove him [Mr Major]. I would not be part of that even if I were in receipt of the whip.
"One of the calculations is it is necessary to have 10 per cent of the parliamentary party asking for an election and if you exclude nine people who are thought to be in disagreement with the Prime Minister, then you may exclude a significant part of that 10 per cent."
But Mr Budgen, one of the rebels most anxious to regain the party whip, called for an end to the rift.Reuse content