The Government in Crisis: Major's rallying cry wins over Tory MPs: Backbenchers were given the speech of a lifetime, but not all were convinced

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 200 Tory backbenchers flooded out of committee room 14 last night agreed on one thing: the Prime Minister had given them the speech of his life. Despite this, some of John Major's most vocal opponents on Europe said it had changed nothing.

John Major emerged smiling after being given a desk-thumping ovation from the 1922 Committee. He was surrounded by supporters and opponents on Maastricht as he left the committee corridor.

Several anti-Maastricht die-hards were still breathing defiance, saying they were determined to vote against the Government. But others who had been threatening to vote against the Government next week ran for cover, avoiding reporters' questions.

There was jubilation among the loyalists. One said hardline opponents could now be counted on the fingers of both hands. 'It was an excellent rallying cry and I hope the buggers rally,' he said. 'Anyone who hasn't registered as a 'conchie' should come in the lobby.'

But asked whether the speech had changed his mind, Bill Cash, one of the 22 Tories who voted against the Second Reading of the Bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty said: 'You must be joking. We shall continue exactly as before. I've not heard anything that makes me change my opinion.'

That was confirmed by Teresa Gorman, and Nick Budgen, who both voted against the Second Reading. Mr Budgen said the speech had been impressive but that he would still vote against the Government next Wednesday. He added, however, that the Prime Minister had been 'very conciliatory' and 'there will be some people at the margins who will be swayed by that performance'. The Prime Minister had made it clear the Bill was not to be 'rammed through the Commons. That is a major change of position.'

Bill Walker, who did not vote against the Second Reading, said: 'It was a very good speech. . . but it has not changed my mind. I intend to vote against the Government.'

Michael Brown, a member of the Thatcherite No Turning Back group, said: 'It was the best speech I have heard him make. It was a fantastic performance. He got the mood exactly right, by dealing with all the real concerns that people had and the difficulties of the past few weeks.'

Winston Churchill, who will vote with the Government, said: 'I have no doubt at all that the waverers would have been brought back into the fold.'

But one of those waverers who will be voting with the Government said: 'It was a brilliant performance, but it will change nothing. It won't alienate anyone, but I doubt that it will stop the Euro-sceptics voting against.'

The final calculation will be for the whips, who were last night counting heads. Asked for the verdict on Mr Major's achievement, one said: 'Magnificent.' Another said: 'I think he's just done enough to pull it back.'

The 35-minute speech was interrupted by eight rounds of desk-banging.

Despite the renewed determination of hardliners, a number looked distinctly grim-faced, with some, such as Michael Spicer, offering no opinion. 'Interesting' was how Nicholas Winterton, another who voted against the Bill's Second Reading, put it.

Liam Fox, another No Turning Back right-winger, predicted that the speech had won over the 'sensible sceptics'.

Nirj Deva, a waverer who signed the Early Day Motion in the summer calling for a 'fresh start' on Europe, said: 'I was heartened and encouraged by what he said. It could well persuade me.'

One of the 22 who voted against the Second Reading said he was considering his position: 'It depends how much it comes down to a vote of confidence by any other name. If it becomes that, I won't vote with Labour.'

John Watts, chairman of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, who also signed 'fresh start', said: 'Apart from the small number who have been consistently opposed to things European in principle, I think you would have to be cravenly bloody-minded not to back the Prime Minister now.' Mr Major had set minds at ease on a range of issues from the ERM to immigration to the timing of the Bill's passage. 'If people don't accept those assurances what they are really saying is that the Prime Minister is telling them a pack of lies. Well I don't think that's the case. That's where the trust has to come in.'

Eric Pickles, MP for Brentwood and Ongar, said: 'We seem to be now in a position where we are looking more and more not at Eurosceptics, but Europhobes - those who don't like Europe, don't like foreigners and don't want anything to do with it. After that performance, only those who feel like that can vote against next week.'

Andrew Marr, page 19

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