Whipless rebels offer Major a lifeline stance

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Political Correspondent

The whipless Tory Euro-rebels could support John Major in Wednesday night's crucial Commons debate as a precursor to their restoration to the party fold.

The move appears more likely after Sir Teddy Taylor, the MP for Southend East and unofficial spokesman for eight of the nine rebels, dramatically scaled down their demands on Mr Major in the Labour-initiated vote.

Sir Teddy accepted that their call for a referendum on a single currency was not going to be met and put forward two "suggestions" - a commitment for border controls to be included in the next EU treaty and for a Commons vote on any move to put sterling back on fixed rates with other European currencies.

As if to confirm rumours that party managers had started an "operation" to bridge the Euro gulf, Jeremy Hanley, Conservative Party Chairman, held out the olive branch, telling Sky News that the rebels' support would be a "step in the right direction".

Mr Major has already indicated that he would take a robust stance on border controls. He may not agree to the rebels' second suggestion, but an upbeat response is expected. "The rebels are pushing at an open door," the source said.

Although Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, tried to reassure the nine Ulster Unionist MPs by yesterday declaring that Sinn Fein could not be brought into substantive negotiations on the province without "seriously addressing" the issue of arms decommissioning, William Ross, their chief whip, said it would be "very difficult" to vote with the Government.

Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor, joined the European debate, telling LWT's Dimbleby programme that Kenneth Clarke was "wrong" to claim that a single currency would not lead to a European super-state.

Those Tory Euro-sceptics who have been pressing for a manifesto commitment to rule out a single currency for the lifetime of the next Parliament face almost certain disappointment. One Whitehall source said: "The single currency opt-out at Maastricht was a massive negotiating coup for John Major. We cannot have a manifesto commitment admitting that a significant part of Government policy was not sustainable after all."

In another move that could threaten John Major's fragile majority, two Tory MPs face censure by the Commons Committee of Privileges over the "cash for questions" affair. But the committee is divided along party lines over whether they should be recommended for suspension.