BY PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES
John Major stepped up preparations for a speech of a political lifetime yesterday in a bid to reassert authority over a divided Tory party by winning tomorrow night's key Commons vote on Europe.
Euro-sceptics believed Mr Major's response to the Labour-initiated debate would sway enough of the nine rebels without the whip to support him - provided, as one put it, he delivered "beef" as well as rhetoric.
Labour business managers appeared to be contemplating the possibility of defeat. Government business managers were leaving nothing to chance, but the Barings collapse will put the rebels under increasing pressure not to further damage the pound by rocking the boat tomorrow night.
Eight of the nine are due to meet tonight to discuss tactics. Some of them believe that all the rebels should adopt a common position of abstaining. But expectations were growing among senior Tories that at least three rebels are prepared to vote for the Government.
The nine Ulster Unionists have said they will only decide how to vote once the Prime Minister has addressed MPs in the debate.
The Commons arithmetic could alter significantly if their protest over the Framework Document for Northern Ireland turns out to take the form of absentions rather than votes for Labour.
The Euro-sceptical wing of the party was boosted by a prime ministerial foreword in a strongly anti-federalist pamphlet published yesterday by the European Research Group.
While Mr Major has not specifically endorsed the paper's proposals, he welcomed them as a "lively and thought-provoking" contribution to the European debate.
A keynote speech today by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, will be carefully scrutinised by the rebels for further sympathetic signs.
Michael Spicer, the MP for South Worcestershire and the research group's chairman, implicitly urged the rebels to come on board, saying in the speech: "The British Conservative Party ... along with friends and allies among the continental centre-right parties ... are well placed to bring the direction of Europe back into line with the wishes of its peoples.
"Contrast this with the paradoxical stance taken by Labour, which has never tried to explain how its support for a single currency can be reconciled with its commitments to full employment and high public spending."
Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, attacked Mr Major's foreward to the group's pamphlet as a crude attempt to woo and placate Euro-sceptics. "Once more the Prime Minister is pandering to the Euro-sceptics in order to save his skin in the vote on Wednesday," he said.
Mr Spicer's speech made clear Euro-sceptics' antagonism towards the European Court of Justice.
"There is now an almost complete consensus among lawyers across Europe that the European Court has ceased merely to perform an interpretive or judicial function and has adopted a policy-making or legislative role," he said.
Some MPs said they would be looking for clear commitment to restricting its powers in the Prime Minister's speech tomorrow night.
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