Will the Euro-rebels yield on the night?

Compared with previous parliamentary rifts, argues Donald Macintyre, this has been the friendliest of separations
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There could scarcely be a drier publication than the official House of Commons Weekly Information Bulletin. Yet each weekend since 28 November, under its totals of the parliamentary strengths of the various parties, it has spelt out the extent of the Government's fragility in seven awesome words: "There is no Government majority at present." Tonight, John Major faces yet another life or death challenge against this stark background when he leads for the Government in a debate on an Opposition motion on Europe which is specifically designed to exploit that fragility to the maximum.

It is a defining moment for the nine rebels who forfeited the party whip on that November evening by refusing to support the Government when Major turned the vote on the European Finance Bill into an issue of confidence. If they support the Government tonight, Major's gamble in meeting the challenge personally will have paid off and they themselves will certainly be on the road to readmission into the party. On the other hand, if they maintain their unity and vote against the Government en bloc, they will precipitate a defeat, a full-scale crisis, and a confidence vote tomorrow on which the Government's survival would then depend.

It's important to restate the potential instability of the Government if only because this has been such an oddly friendly civil war. Removal of the whip on this scale is a highly unusual step for party managers to take. To find the nearest parallel you have to go back a generation to the outlawing of half a dozen rebels in the Labour Party led by Michael Foot. But from the course of events since last November, you might imagine it happened every day.

Soon after the whip was withdrawn, the rebels were warned that they would have to show consistent loyalty to the Government to be reassimilated. Yet less than a fortnight after the European Finance Bill, the Government was threatened with defeat over the second-stage increase in VAT on fuel. Well, said some ministers (and many journalists), they won't rebel on that. They've got too much to lose; and besides, it would show that they weren't rebelling on an issue of principle on Europe. They would undermine their case by just looking like wreckers.

And yet what has happened since they did rebel (with six abstentions and three votes against) over VAT on fuel - and for good measure on the Common European Fisheries Policy a month later? They have not been ostracised. They still socialise with their colleagues in the tea-room. Their contacts with ministers - and not only those on the Cabinet right - remain frequent and generally cordial. They are informally kept in touch with the weekly party whip which advises backbenchers how to vote on forthcoming business. The Prime Minister has referred to them as "very blue Conservatives"; and several of his colleagues have tended to refer to their apostasy more in sorrow than in anger.

There are a number of reasons. The first is that activists in their own constituencies have not, on the whole, risen up against them; if anything, the opposite is true. Nothing would have driven them more into political isolation than the threat of deselection by their own parties, a threat which has not so far materialised. To many of the party's activists, particularly some of the fundamentalist young Turks, the "party within a party" have looked more like heroes than outcasts.

Second, the narrowness of the majority has exposed the relative weakness of party managers in the face of rebellion, undermining - perhaps for ever - the myth that it is more difficult to contain internal party conflict when majorities are large and dissidents know they can parade their consciences without threatening the Government with defeat. And third, the balance of power within the party from the Prime Minister down appears, since Christmas, to have shifted to the right on Europe - in other words in the direction of the whipless ones themselves. For this last point, of course, they would like to take a great deal of the credit.

To answer the question of how much they have achieved, it may be worth looking at the whipless ones through the eyes of a currently rather neglected group - the Europhobes in the Tory party who rebelled with them during the Maastricht Bill but have not done so since. The whipless ones do not, for example, include three of the leading figures from the Maastricht period - Michael Spicer, William Cash, the Maastricht rebels' most relentless publicist, and James Cran, perhaps their most thoughtful strategist.

That split - a schism between the provisional and official wing of the hardline Euro-sceptics which occurred after the Maastricht Bill became law - was based in a serious and continuing disagreement. The provisionals, especially the most fundamentalist among them, Christopher Gill, Tony Marlow, Sir Richard Body, John Wilkinson and probably Teresa Gorman, argued that it was necessary to continue exerting every kind of pressure, including that of parliamentary guerrilla warfare, on the Prime Minister.

The "officials" argued, by contrast, that it was necessary to regroup, devise a coherent strategy for the 1996 intergovernmental conference, and not destabilise the party in the meantime. In particular, they disagreed about whether what became an article of faith with the whipless ones - the demand for a commitment by the Prime Minister to rule out a single currency for ever - was truly realistic. The Cran tendency, in an almost certainly correct view shared by the Cabinet Euro-sceptics, reckoned that for the forseeable future such a goal, however desirable, was unrealisable, not least because it could well precipitate the resignation of Kenneth Clarke, and quite possibly Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd as well.

And they disagreed, too, about the analysis of why and when the Prime Minister started to shift towards a more Euro-sceptic position. The "officials" believe that Major's movements since Christmas - such as ruling out a single currency in 1996-97 in his January Breakfast with Frost interview - far from being the result of the whipless ones' tactics, are in fact of a piece with a process which began as early as Major's Economist article in September 1993, which was notably hostile to a single currency. And they genuinely fear the precipitation of a general election which could well produce a Labour government and mean, in Mr Cran's words yesterday, that the whole "end game" on Europe would be lost.

What happens tonight will partly depend on how far the whipless rebels have started to accept those arguments. The whips are optimistic that even the whipless ones will not be prepared to support Labour on an Opposition day motion - a parliamentary crime above all others. And even if they all abstained - as opposed to voting against the Government - the Government would squeak home.

There are fears among their one-time comrades in the Maastricht battles that a handful of the whipless rebels, led perhaps by Christopher Gill, will simply refuse to budge, that for them this is now an issue "above party". But there are also growing signs that the rebels themselves are now split; that Richard Shepherd, perhaps, and Nicholas Budgen, and possibly Sir Teddy Taylor, would now like a way back. Taylor has spoken of more modest goals than before, perhaps a commitment to put before Parliament any future decision to rejoin the exchange rate mechanism.

The stakes are high. Victory for Major tonight will certainly not be a sufficient condition for the Tories to begin a long march to electoral recovery; but it is looking increasingly like a necessary one.