The Vote of Confidence: Rebels win a thick coating of emollient: The Reparation

FIVE MINUTES before the vote which could have plunged Britain into a September election, Labour MPs began to smell a rat, writes Colin Brown. 'There's been a deal,' they shouted.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, praised the integrity of the Tory rebels who, the night before, had nearly brought John Major and his government to its knees.

These were the same Tory rebels, who, just a few hours before, had been excoriated by one former minister as being 'insane headbangers'. Mr Hurd described them as a 'stalwart group'.

Common ground would begin to emerge within the Conservative Party, he said. 'We never believed it was a perfect treaty,' he added, referring to the Maastricht deal that Mr Major had triumphantly described as 'Game, set and match'. The part-time novelist added that the rebels' struggles would find a place in the annals of Parliamentary history.

The emollient was so thickly applied that the rebels could not keep their faces straight. Teddy Taylor, the headbanger-in-chief, gave a wry smile.

When the vote was called, the result was a foregone conclusion. The Government whipped the rebels into line, then smothered their rebellion with kindness.

John Major had opened the debate by warning that he would seek the dissolution of the House if he lost the confidence vote.

Norma Major, dressed in canary yellow, sat with her teenage son James in the VIPs gallery of the House of Commons to see her husband make the speech of his life on the confidence motion that he had tabled on his own government.

But like the champagne of rebellion on the morning after, it had fallen flat. Mr Major sounded tired, his speech a re-run of the one that he had delivered the night before.

John Smith had clearly slept more easily since the Government defeat. He was in sparkling form. Kenneth Clarke, looking as though he had slept in his pink-and-green striped Garrick Club tie, intervened but quickly wished he had not.

Labour MPs shouted: 'It's a leadership bid'. Mr Smith told the Chancellor of the Exchequer, tipped by many as the next leader of the Conservative Party, that his speech had been more effective than the Prime Minister's. Mr Major laughed, but the dart hit the bull's-eye with the Tory back bench.

Mr Smith told the Prime Minister that when he reached for a weapon, he always seemed to find a boomerang. Five hours later, Mr Hurd threw it back. A boomerang, the Foreign Secretary said, 'stuns its target and then returns shrewdly into the hands of the thrower'.

When it was all over, Mr Smith walked out behind the Speaker's Chair and nervously looked up at the Press Gallery, clearly wondering whether the boomerang had hit him.

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