The Government in Crisis: Cosy chats soften up backbench rebels: Tory waverers faced a top-level charm assault. Colin Brown reports

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The Independent Online
TORY BACKBENCH MPs were split yesterday between those who did, those who refused, and those not even invited to discuss Maastricht with the Prime Minister or Michael Heseltine.

The high-powered charm offensive appeared to be working as a handful of potential rebels were persuaded to drop their opposition to voting with the Government over Maastricht next week.

A group of the Tory 'new boys' emerged suitably charmed after spending 90 minutes over cups of tea with John Major in his private room at the House of Commons. Fourteen MPs, many from the 1992 intake, had been invited. Most had signed a Commons motion in June calling for a 'fresh start' after the Danish 'no' vote.

One, Liam Fox, said: 'I was probably going to support the Government but with a heavy heart. The Prime Minister enabled me to do it more happily. It was impressive that he was willing to give up 1.5 hours, but he took us into his confidence by telling us a lot of detail about his negotiating position.

'He also made it clear to us that he felt he had to take certain decisions to get a deal in Edinburgh and he emphasised that it was Government policy, part of the election manifesto.'

'Prezza Hezza' was having less luck with some of the other waverers. One refusenik said: 'I have been invited, but if I'm asked, I'll say it got lost in the internal post. He's telling people to be loyal. That's a bit rich coming from him.'

Another Tory MP who joined Mr Heseltine for a drink in his private room with a couple of backbench colleagues said: 'He didn't seem to be very well briefed. He said we had all voted with the Government on the second reading. I said I hadn't'

The Tory high command said it had deliberately kept Cabinet ministers off the media this week to halt the impression that the Cabinet was isolated from the backbench. Loyalist Tory backbenchers were doing the studio rounds to show that 'there is a debate between MPs'.

That debate was in danger of getting out of hand yesterday. 'Two MPs had a slanging match in the library,' one shocked Tory backbencher said. 'Raised voices in the members' library - what is the world coming to?'

Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment and the leading Cabinet Euro- doubter, did his bit by going into the tea room to persuade more doubters to support the Government.

But some of the anti-Maastricht recidivists took a cynical view of his support. 'He's got a very tough public spending negotiation in the morning - he knows unless he stands by the Government, he won't get what he needs,' one rebel said.

None of the Tory 'awkward squad' were being invited for a tete-a-tete with Cabinet ministers. There was no invitation for Sir Teddy Taylor, a veteran rebel on Europe, who was among those regarded as 'beyond reach' on the issue.

But word was also running around the backbench that would strike a chill in the hearts of the Tory leadership.

'Lady Thatcher is inviting some of us to her room for a counter- briefing. And she is saying we will have to take names of all those who vote with the Government.'