The rebels have been preparing for this critical weekend for a long time. For months now, groups of up to 50 anti- Maastricht backbenchers have been meeting in Westminster restaurants, such as Cafe Rodin, near the House of Lords. Bonds of friendship and mutual loyalty have been forged, to rival those that automatically lock Tory MPs into loyalty to their current leader.
One put it this way: 'I think we have about 10 more who will vote against than the whips believe. I think this because they have looked me in the eye several times. I know them, and they know me. We are all in this together.' If he is right, Mr Major will lose next week. The rebel network also embraces many journalists and ennobled Thatcherites. It has become, in effect, an unofficial opposition party. Its spiritual leader, Lady Thatcher, has been seeing youthful rebels herself. Not all the anti-Maastrichtians approve. One explained drily that 'people are being summoned to kiss her ring'. So long, came one response, as it is only her ring.
So the profound importance of next week's confrontation for Conservative politics cannot be underestimated. It is a showdown between two varieties of right- wing thought, even of instinct. Both sides genuinely believe that they represent the gut feelings of the party in the country. Both are genuinely outraged at the other: civil wars are always the nastiest.
Of course, if Mr Major wins, the war will not be ended. But Labour pro-Europeans who will try to bring him down on Wednesday will not go into the lobbies against the Maastricht Bill night after night during the detailed committee stage that follows, nor on third reading. To that extent, next week marks Mr Major's time of maximum parliamentary danger.
The numbers need to be recalled, since they matter so much. The support of the Liberal Democrats for the pro-Maastricht motion agreed by Cabinet yesterday, would give a paper majority of 59. A couple of other expected supporters brings that to around 62-63. Some ministers hope that the Government will be helped by a small number of Labour pro-Europeans who will be conveniently absent. Not so. And the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and the Ulster Unionists also appear determined to vote against the cabinet motion.
Labour's draft amendment puts off consideration of the Bill. It has become known as the 'Josephine amendment' for its underlying 'not tonight . . .' message and is intended to attract maximum support from the Tory rebels. Yesterday, Mr Major suggested that MPs should vote on the Cabinet's Maastricht motion on its merits (rather than as a question of confidence). He did so to ensure the backing of Liberal Democrat MPs - but his private message to wavering Tory MPs will be the entirely different 'back me, or sack me'.
If more than 30 Tories vote against the Government, it is likely to be defeated. Ministers and rebels agree that there is a hard-core rebellion of between 15 and 20. But beyond that, in an atmosphere acrid with smoky propaganda, estimates vary wildly. Pro-Europeans were predicting that the total rebellion would be cut to a humiliating 10 or so. Rebel leaders were still convinced that they had between 40 and 50. Both sides, needless to say, had extraordinarily detailed and cross-referenced lists, and a wide variety of persuasive techniques prepared, rebel by rebel.
Someone, therefore, will be looking pretty stupid on Thursday morning. The general expectation (which I share) is that it will be the rebels. But they say that the Government's whipping operation is shambolic on this - and some of the younger, uncommitted backbenchers agree with them. What ministers and rebels are unanimous about is that the vital shift will happen over this weekend. Most of the arguments that will be used have been rehearsed ad nauseam in public, but they will reappear now with a sharper, more personal edge: 'You really want to leave politics in the Labour landslide election, do you? You were never such a bloody good accountant, were you?' Or (from the rebels): 'You told us you wouldn't buckle. You said you were convinced. Still able to look yourself in the shaving-mirror, dear boy?'
Last night, one loyalist MP, Andrew Rowe, reminded his Mid Kent Conservative association of 'Hallowe'en, a time when the dead who rest uneasy in their graves stalk the earth'. In an attack on the chairman of the right-wing 92 Group, he said that the 'whisperings and gibberings' of former cabinet ministers 'are music in the ears of Mephistopheles, Sir George Gardiner MP, for whom the thrill of political conspiracy transcends any political cause'. There were 'innocent souls at risk'.
Quite so. But were I a wavering Tory rebel this weekend, I would leave my telephone off the hook and retreat, if need be, to my local graveyard for a long and thoughtful midnight stroll. No lost soul there could be half as alarming as the whispering voices waiting on the other end of the line back home.Reuse content