At least two loyalist Cabinet ministers spent part of the afternoon stiffening his resolve and urging him to carry on whatever the scale of the victory. In the end, 109 Conservative MPs failed to back Mr Major - 89 voted for his rival, John Redwood, the others abstained or spoilttheir papers. But, because of the immediate support of his colleagues, the Prime Minister remained in office.
At a meeting in Mr Major's Commons office, he confided that he thought he would have great difficulty surviving if more than 100 MPs withdrew their support. One source said that Mr Major was "wobbly".
The news contradicts claims that Mr Major knew on Tuesday morning that he had secured victory through a deal which made Michael Heseltine Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Heseltine, amid rumours that he had turned down the posts of Conservative party chairman and Chancellor, said: "There was no conspiracy. There was no deal."
But he did not deny that he had turned down the party chairmanship, saying that he and Mr Major "ranged over a whole range of possible thoughts".
Mr Heseltine, it has emerged, will put together the party's election manifesto, and has been identified as the "hitman" against Tony Blair, the Labour leader.
In an olive branch to the right, Mr Heseltine told journalists last week: "All members of the Conservative party in the House of Commons have the chance to explain to me their ideas. All wings of the party have the opportunity to make a contribution to the way in which we move forward".
The important issues, he said, included competitiveness, information technology and "how we can push power closer to the people, how to devolve power to more local levels".
Mr Heseltine took up his new "hitman" role with enthusiasm. He said: "I think it's quite extraordinary that a man who has flirted with all the tenets of socialism, nationalisation, high taxation, now says he has been converted to what? To soundbite politics."
The Deputy Prime Minister attacked Mr Blair over his decision to send his son to an opted-out school, saying: "Whenever you see Tony Blair faced with a genuine need to change he only wants to go back ... for example in education, where, although exercising choice for his personal case, he wants to give more powers back to local authorities."
On Channel 4's A Week in Politics, Mr Blair responded: "The whole business of government will be a propaganda exercise against the Labour Party. You have got about three Cabinet ministers whose job is to do nothing but attack the Labour Party".
Gordon Brown, shadow Chancellor, said that Mr Heseltine had changed his mind on the Social Chapter and the English Development Agency. "Nobody is less qualified to talk about inconsistencies than Michael Heseltine," Mr Brown said.
After the vote, page 12
Alan Watkins, page 23Reuse content