Conservative fears of further Commons defections in the wake of Labour's crushing by-election victory on Thursday were intensified by a weekend report that two unnamed MPs have held secret talks with members of the Shadow Cabinet and Tony Blair's office.
The report, which was not denied by a spokesman for Mr Blair yesterday, said the MPs were ready to join Labour if Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had resigned over the Prime Minister's plan to promise a referendum on a single European currency.
A further defection would wipe out John Major's Commons majority - cut to one by the election of Labour's Brian Jenkins in Staffordshire South East last week. The Government's survival in a vote of confidence would then depend on the nine-strong Ulster Unionist Party, led by David Trimble, and Ian Paisley's three Democratic Unionist Party MPs. Speculation yesterday centred on strong pro-Europeans, including Peter Temple-Morris, Edwina Currie, Julian Critchley, Quentin Davies, Sir David Knox and Hugh Dykes. Mr Temple-Morris, who recently set up a "One Nation" Tory think-tank called the Macleod Group, was in trouble with some members of his local Tory association in Leominster. But the rebels were unable to muster the 50 signatures required on a petition to reopen the choice of the urbane, white-haired former solicitor as the Tory candidate for the next election. Mr Temple-Morris was for years the leader of the "One Nation" Tory faction in the Commons, as head of a group called the Lollards which organised to win internal elections to backbench committees. His factional instincts - "we have to stay and fight" - suggest he will be loyal, but his grave manner conceals a wicked enjoyment of ideological battle which might tempt him to go. Mrs Currie has been intensely frustrated by the failure of pro-Europeans in all parties, but especially the Tories, to push their arguments more vigorously. In recent months she has worked closely with Labour MPs Giles Radice and Peter Mandelson in the cross-party European Movement to promote the arguments for a single currency. …