The Prime Minister's efforts to reassure the Unionists during more than 90 minutes of talks at Downing Street, suffered a serious setback when the party's delegation wrote to him warning that they would not enter negotiations on the basis of a "nationalist agenda".
The Ulster Unionists' letter was seen as a clear step towards ending support for the Government, threatening Mr Major with defeats in the Commons and throwing into doubt his hopes of securing the Ulster Unionist Party's support for the devolution plans.
But it will not end the peace process. Mr Major is prepared to appeal directly to the loyalist community if the Unionist MPs reject the framework document.
Willie Ross, David Trimble, and the Rev Martin Smyth - who had been briefed by Mr Major and Michael Ancram, Minister of State for Northern Ireland - sent Mr Major a sharply-worded letter warning that the negotiators were "asking for a bridge too far" and said bluntly that they would not enter talks on the basis of the details they had so far been given.
The British and Irish governments last night indicated that five hours of talks in Belfast had overcome all the major obstacles that were holding up publication of the joint framework document.
Hopes that proposals for an internal assembly would encourage the Unionists to drop their hostility to cross-border institutions appeared to founder on objections to the "balancing mechanisms" planned for the assembly. Last night's letter repeated an earlier statement that the Irish and British government negotiators were "gravely mistaken" if they thought "Unionists can be bought off by a useless assembly that has no freedom to determine how it orders its own affairs".
British officials believe the ferocity of the UUP reaction since the outlines of the cross-border bodies were leaked, does not necessarily reflect mainstream opinion in loyalist communities.
But the reaction of the three MPs, coupled with the absence of the party leader, James Molyneaux - who is apparently taking a back seat in contacts with Mr Major - is a serious setback. Mr Molyneaux was believed to have been consulted on the drafting of last night's letter.
Unionist sources said the delegation was told the assembly would operate on a system of "weighted majority" voting to protect the rights of nationalists. At the same time, Dublin would have the right to raise problems that arose in the assembly - though only the British government would have the direct right to try and resolve them.
The UUP delegation is understood to have expressed concern about the nature of the cross-border bodies, and the fact that there was "no limit" to the topics they could cover.
The talks in Belfast yesterday to finalise details of the document were followed by markedly upbeat news conferences at which ministers said only presentational and drafting matters remained to be completed. The document could be published by the end of next week.Reuse content