Wednesday's men plot their coup

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The resignation of David Heathcoat-Amory underlined the importance of a shadowy group of Conservative MPs who meet on Wednesdays to plot the replacement of John Major after the next election by a Euro-sceptic Tory leader: John Redwood, Michael Portillo or Michael Howard.

Some members of the group, which meets by invitation only, and supposedly to monitor the Government's European policy, are making secret plans for a Redwood leadership attempt after the expected general election defeat. Regular attenders include Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, and Euro- sceptics Bill Cash, Sir Teddy Taylor and Christopher Gill.

The group has met John Major, Michael Heseltine, the deputy Prime Minister, and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, and closely questioned them about future policy on Europe. One MP who was there said: "The answers they gave were unconvincing, and made most of us feel uneasy."

Mr Redwood is still the front-runner on the right. Many Tory MPs feel he has eclipsed Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence. But other Euro-sceptics are plotting on behalf of the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.

"The party has lost the election ... We have got to rediscover our Thatcherite principles," said the MP.

With less than a year to go to the earliest likely date of a Tory leadership contest, immediately after a May 1997 general election, the tempo of covert campaigning has risen.

Mr Redwood, who won 89 votes in his challenge to Mr Major last year, has been freer than any of the Cabinet contenders to campaign for the post, with an operation that has its own HQ at the Conservative 2000 Foundation, a think-tank set up by his adviser Hywel Williams.