The Government in Crisis: Thatcherites return to stalk the lobbies: Colin Brown reports on the 92 Group of backbenchers who are threatening to become 'the tail that wags the dog'

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The Independent Online
THE MEMBERS' LOBBY was thick with MPs engaged in gossip, speculation, intrigue about Maastricht and John Major.

Leading Tory rebels hung around the whips' office, hoping for titbits. A minister briefed on the importance of the treaty, while Tory opponents stood by, heckling. Whatever the nation's mood, it was not a party at ease with itself.

As the Prime Minister held a crisis summit with senior colleagues, the leaders of the Tory rebellion on Maastricht held a private summit yesterday to plot their own tactics.

At 11.30am, with the Prime Minister still in conference in Downing Street, Michael Spicer, a former minister in the Thatcher government, walked jauntily to No 1 Parliament Street, the recently refurbished MPs' offices on the corner of Parliament Square, for a meeting with Sir George Gardiner, chairman of the 92 Group of Tory MPs.

Mr Spicer had tucked under his arm the weighty manuscript of his book, A Treaty Too Far, which he had completed at 4am yesterday. It will be published next week to coincide with the Maastricht debate.

The bouncy demeanour of the rebel leaders spoke more volumes. They were sure they were on to a winner, and were counting heads. At worst, they reckoned they had 38 names of Tory MPs prepared to vote against the Government on Maastricht, probably eight more than required to inflict defeat.

Across the road, in Downing Street, Mr Major was engaged in tactical talks to avoid the debate turning into a disaster. He was in conference with Tony Newton, leader of the Commons, Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the party, John Wakeham, leader of the Lords, and Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip.

The night before, the Chief Whip had been told by Sir George after a meeting of 60 members of the 92 Group at the Commons that Mr Major should back down or be beaten. It was a message the Chief Whip had tried, unsuccessfully, to impress on the Cabinet meeting last Thursday.

The whips, touring the lobbies yesterday in an attempt to staunch the flow of Mr Major's support, were appalled that Downing Street had allowed it to appear an issue of confidence.

Sir George, 57, a former Daily Telegraph lobby journalist, had spent the morning making their job more difficult. Hardly known outside Westminster, he had reinforced the 92 Group's message in a range of media interviews. If Mr Major had refused to listen last week, he only had to switch on a radio or a television to hear it yesterday.

Shortly after 7am, Sir George appeared on the Today programme on BBC radio. 'No one imagines that any Prime Minister would be allowed to get as far as the Queen to tender the resignation of his whole Cabinet without first putting it to a vote of confidence, which, of course, he would win,' Sir George said. At 1pm he was repeating the message on television news.

The Thatcherite 92 Group is behind much of the pressure to force the Prime Minister to retreat on economic and European policy. Its influence has dismayed some ministers, who believe Mr Major must win the battle of wills or surrender power to his predecessor's followers. They see it as the culmination of a Thatcherite coup on the backbench by those who still nurse resentment over the way Baroness Thatcher was brought down.

'John has got to see off the Thatcherites. He has got to put the knee right in the groin,' one senior minister of state said.

If the knee is aimed anywhere, it is aimed at Sir George, MP for Reigate, chairman of the 92 Group, and unofficial chief shop steward of the Thatcherites on the Tory back bench.

Kenneth Clarke had the 92 Group in his sights when he protested on Monday that the Thatcherite tail could not be allowed to wag the Tory dog.

The group owes its name to 92 Cheyne Walk, its former meeting place and the home of Sir Patrick Wall, a former senior Tory backbench MP, who founded it.

The strength of the group lies in its organisational skills. Sir George organised a slate of candidates for the elections to the backbench committees, a tactic previously regarded as unseemly for Conservatives and more akin to the trade unionism of the Labour Party.

In their reluctance to organise, the wets allowed the 92 Group to consolidate its control of the parliamentary party in the annual elections last autumn.

The group also has virtual control of the 18-strong executive of the 1922 Committee, which has become more outspoken in its criticism of the Government. They include Sir George, Bob Dunn, a Thatcherite former minister, James Pawsey, and Sir Rhodes Boyson. The executive has been responsible for telling Mr Major to 'get a grip'.

Other members of the 92 Group include John Carlisle, Teresa Gorman, and Sir Teddy Taylor, who have been most outspoken in criticising Mr Major's stand on the Maastricht treaty.

(Photographs omitted)