The Vote of Confidence: Unspoken threat that hangs over dissidents: The Whips

TORY rebels were under threat of losing the whip when they met in private at their headquarters - 17 Great College Street, within hailing distance of the House of Commons - to discuss tactics for yesterday's confidence vote.

The collapse of their rebellion was signalled at 1pm when Tony Marlow, one of the most die-hard of their number, stood outside their front door and said: 'We are all together. We have a united strategy.'

They had decided at their private meeting to stick together and vote for the Government so that they would not be picked off individually. Teresa Gorman, a leading rebel, told friends that the whips had telephoned her husband to persuade her to vote with the Government, but the threat of a general election was enough.

Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, and the Cabinet had wrong-footed them by putting the confidence motion down so quickly. 'They thought we would play for time. This is the last thing they expected, and they didn't know what to do,' one Government whip said.

With the Government's overall majority reduced to 18, and likely to fall to 17 after the Christchurch by- election, removing the whip was regarded as an empty threat. It is rarely used and no direct threat was made, but Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, refused to rule out its removal for any Tory MP who defied John Major's call for unity.

The threat of deselection is still hanging over some of the rebels. The whips said at least two of the 23 rebels who could be dropped for the next election. 'The constituencies are free to say that they are selecting for the election and the MP is on the short-list,' said one whip. 'That will make their eyes water.' The rest of the rebels were being comprehensively rubbished by Government sources as being either 'mad, bad or boring'.

Cabinet ministers toured the lobbies putting the best gloss on the crisis. 'If he had delayed, it would have been the beginning of the end, but this has caught the rebels by surprise,' one minister said.

The use of the confidence motion, described as the 'nuclear option' by one former minister, was agreed by the Cabinet at a meeting three hours before the vote on Thursday night.

Other options included allowing Labour to table a censure motion or promising a White Paper by the autumn on the ways out of the Maastricht maze. The Cabinet decided it had to take the initiative by tabling the confidence motion, but there was a dispute about the timing.

Tony Newton, Leader of the House, argued it would be better to delay the confidence motion until Monday to allow the constituency parties to work on the rebels.

But there was a view that that would increase the ill-feeling. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and William Waldegrave, the Cabinet minister responsible for public service and science, wanted to heal wounds with a confidence motion, which could be used as a show of unity. Other big guns in the Cabinet, led by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, urged John Major to slap down the rebels with the threat to back him or face a general election, which they knew they would lose.

Mr Major could have made Thursday's vote an issue of confidence, but that gamble had been used before and the whips advised him that, even if he won, it would leave the rebels festering. 'This way, the blame has been laid firmly on the rebels. They didn't expect that to happen.'

When the Prime Minister began his speech at the start of the confidence debate, the whips were outside the chamber, continuing their pressure on rebels.

Michael Brown, a junior whip, stood by the massive swing doors to the Commons chamber, and tackled the rebels as they entered. The hard-core rebels were left by the whips 'to stew'. But the rumour ran around the lobbies that any Tory MP who voted against the confidence motion would lose the whip.

(Photograph omitted)

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