Staking his survival on a vote of confidence after losing a critical vote on European unity, Prime Minister John Major challenged his divided Conservative Party today to back him or let the government fall.
"I am not prepared to let it poison the political atmosphere any longer," Major told a rowdy House of Commons, referring to his party's divisions over the Maastricht treaty on European union."The boil must be lanced and it must be lanced today," he said. "At the conclusion of this debate, either the government will have won the vote of confidence and can proceed with its policy . . . or we shall have lost I and will seek a dissolution of Parliament."
Major called for the showdown Thursday night after losing the second of two critical votes on the Maastricht treaty, which has become the albatross of his term in office.
His opponents within the Conservative Party faced a choice today of continuing their battle against the treaty or, by voting no-confidence, forcing an election.
Conservative officials were quietly confident this morning, well aware that most of their 332 members in Parliament do not want an election at a time when the party is sitting at the bottom of opinion polls.
"We will win this vote today," Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd told BBC Radio this morning. "Rebels know we're serious about a possible election."
Embittered Conservative rebels conceded they had little choice but to back Major.
"Either we have a general election or we have to vote for this ghastly Maastricht Treaty," said Teresa Gorman, one of the Conservative legislators who voted against the government Thursday night.
Britain is the only member of the 12-nation European Community not to have ratified the accord. The voting Thursday delayed even further the day when Europe draws closer together as an economic bloc.