Better defeat their own government now than defend VAT on fuel at the n ext election
If the polls are right, if Labour really has a 39.5 per cent lead, as Gallup reported last week, the Tories would be all but wiped out in a general election. Even the Prime Minister would struggle to hold his seat.

On normal form, however, the Government has ample time to recover before an election in late 1996 or early 1997. By then, the Tories would almost certainly have narrowed the gap, probably with the aid of income tax cuts. But in the past few weeks an early general election, perhaps in the spring of 1995, has entered the realms of possibility. After all, the Conservative Party is now technically in a minority in the House of Commons.

So what if there were an early general election? Which Tory MPs could we wave goodbye to? Would the Tory rebels come off worse than the Cabinet ministers? Would a badlybeaten Conservative Party have a natural majority of MPs for a Euro-sceptic line?

The answers depend on the size of the defeat. It is a reasonable assumption that Labour would not poll the 61 per cent that Gallup gave it last week. But it is also a reasonable assumption that the swing would be big enough to take Labour to power. It istrue that governments have recovered from huge poll deficits in the past, but not from a deficit of the present size and not in just a few months.

We have looked at the effects of three possible results for a spring general election: A big swing. This assumes that the Major government does as badly as the Callaghan government did in 1979. In that election, Labour trailed by seven percentage points.There are a number of political similarities. Labour in the late 1970s was also deeply divided, it had also presided over a sterling devaluation and it had suffered frequent Commons defeats, including some on budgetary measures.

In this case, 93 of the 332 MPs who were elected as Conservatives two years ago could expect to lose their seats. Three Cabinet ministers could fall: Brian Mawhinney (Transport), Malcolm Rifkind (Defence) and Ian Lang (Scotland). So could several junior ministers including Nicholas Soames at Defence and Michael Forsyth at the Home Office, and former ministers such as Edwina Currie and Angela Rumbold. Prominent backbenchers, such as Dame Jill Knight, Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Peacock, could also beout of the Commons and, no doubt, off our television screens.

But the most striking outcome is the high casualty rate among the backbench rebels. Of the eight MPs who lost the whip after their rebellion over Europe, three could be defeated at the polls in a 1979-style result. These are Tony Marlow (Northampton North), Nick Budgen (Wolverhampton SW) and Michael Cartiss (Great Yarmouth). Among the VAT rebels - those who failed to support the Government last week but had stayed loyal on Europe the previous week - the casualty rate is higher still. Four of the six could lose their seats - Phil Gallie (Ayr), William Powell (Corby), David Sumberg (Bury South) and Paul Marland (Gloucs West). So also could the two MPs, Andrew Bowden (Brighton Kemptown) and Harry Greenway (Ealing North), who trooped through the governmentlobby only after Kenneth Clarke announced his £100m package of compensation for pensioners. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough) and Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth) could also expect to lose their seats. They failed to vote last week because of illness but, given their past statements on the VAT issue, they might well have been among the rebels.

All this carries a disturbing message for Mr Major and the Cabinet. Some Tory MPs in marginal seats evidently trust their own judgement about how best to save their political careers more than they trust the Cabinet's judgement. Better defeat their own government now, they seem to calculate, than have to defend VAT on fuel at the next election. If backbenchers continue to make that kind of judgement, Mr Major's chances of pulling his party together seem remote. Some MPs may calculate that the more they are distanced from the Government and its decisions, the better.

A landslide. A 1979-style defeat looks an optimistic assumption for the Tories at present. It may be more realistic to expect a repeat of the Euro-election result last June. That left the Conservatives 18 points behind Labour. What would happen if the swing in each constituency was the same as in the local Euro-seat last summer?

More than half the parliamentary party - 186 Tory MPs - could expect to lose their seats. Several cabinet ministers would probably be out: William Waldegrave (Agriculture), Gillian Shephard (Education), Stephen Dorrell (National Heritage), David Hunt (Duchy of Lancaster), Jonathan Aitken (Treasury) and Tony Newton (Leader of the Commons). So would the party chairman, Jeremy Hanley, and the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Marcus Fox. The casualties among former ministers could include DavidMellor and, probably to the delight of the nation's teachers, John Patten, who lost his job as Education Secretary in the summer reshuffle.

But the biggest and most important casualty would be Michael Portillo. His 32 per cent majority in Enfield Southgate would not be enough to withstand the 19 per cent swing that Labour achieved in the London North Euro-constituency. Some Tory right-wingers have suggested that Tory catastrophe at the next election would pave the way for their hero to become party leader. They should remember what happened to Tony Benn, hero of the Labour left, in 1983. He was swept away in a Tory landslide and so could not stand for the leadership when Michael Foot resigned.

A result comparable to last June would be likely to drive even more of the Euro-rebels out. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge Brownhills), Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend East) and Teresa Gorman (Billericay) would all face defeat, leaving the rebel eight with just two survivors,. plus Sir Richard Body, who resigned the Whip in sympathy. Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent North) would bring the total of casualties from the VAT rebellion to five out of six.

An earthquake. Set against the opinion polls, even the Euro-election result looks quite good for the Tories. Perhaps, in an early general election, the Tories would fare even worse. But a 39.5 per cent Labour lead looks too implausible. After their failure to predict the 1992 election result accurately, the pollsters now produce "adjusted" figures, mainly to take account of some voters' apparent reluctance to admit that they will vote Tory. These adjusted figures give Labour a 24-point lead.

What would happen if this lead were repeated in a general election? Another 43 MPs could lose their seats, leaving barely more than 100 Tories in the Commons. The casualties could include Kenneth Clarke and Norman Lamont, the two Chancellors associated with VAT on fuel. John Gummer (Environment), Peter Lilley (Social Security) and Richard Ryder (Chief Whip) would also face defeat. Three more of last week's rebels would go: Ann Winterton (Congleton), Christopher Gill (Ludlow) and Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston).

Indeed, the only rebels left would be Nicholas Winterton and, in Ruislip, John Wilkinson. The latter is the one rebel who does not have to worry about a big swing against an unpopular government. The only risk to his political future is deselection.

Only seven Cabinet ministers can be sure of riding out even the most violent electoral storm: John Major, Douglas Hurd, Michael Howard, Sir Patrick Mayhew, Virginia Bottomley, John Redwood - and Michael Heseltine. The last could then, in all probability,have the Tory leadership for the asking. Whether he would think it still worth having is another matter.

The author is senior lecturer in politics at Strathclyde University.