Chief Political Correspondent
John Major last night used a New Year message to his supporters to say he would not "cut and run" in spite of the defection of Emma Nicholson which has increased the threat of an early general election in 1996.
The Prime Minister, in his first reaction to the defection of the Tory MP to the Liberal Democrats, said it was sad when people could not see through commitments they had made to their electorate just a few years ago. "But that will not deflect me from seeing through my commitments to the end." he said.
"It is too easy to cut and run when hard decisions have to be made - as we have seen with the defection of one MP in the last couple of days."
The leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair, warned his troops to "be patient, disciplined and determined" for the election as the Government staggered on. The defection of Ms Nicholson showed that the Government was "disintegrating before our eyes", he said. Mr Major had insisted he would go the full term. "They could stumble and stagger on for a good while yet - but that cannot be in Britain's interests," Mr Blair said.
In a separate new year message of "confidence, optimism and hope", and a warning to Britain not to throw away the prospect of success by electing a Labour government, Mr Major sought to rally his demoralised party.
Promising better times ahead, his message to all Tory constituency chairmen declared: "Labour would weaken, divide and wreck Britain. Britain has earned the right to look forward to the new year with confidence, optimism and hope. 1996 will be the year when proven success wins through."
But Ms Nicholson's defection and a pending by-election, which could reduce Mr Major's Commons majority to three votes, left the Prime Minister facing the worst 12 months of his turbulent term of office.
Ms Nicholson and Tory MPs in the "One Nation" group warned there could be up to six other MPs prepared to defect. The whips are largely powerless to stop such moves, although some of the main suspects - including Hugh Dykes, Peter Temple-Morris, and Sir Keith Speed - denied any plans to leave.
A senior Government source said the Government expected its majority to be wiped out by the end of the year. That would force Mr Major to rely on the 12 Ulster Unionists to struggle through to a general election in 1997, when the Tories are hoping that the economic upturn will revive the feel-good factor.
Leading Ulster Unionists yesterday confirmed they would not seek to bring down the Government - as long as the Government refused to compromise in its demands for the IRA to begin disarming before Sinn Fein may join all-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland.
Labour's Chief Whip, Donald Dewar, said: "This government is in crisis. The latest defection is proof positive of the turmoil within Conservative ranks."
Ms Nicholson revealed she was hit in the stomach by a Conservative MP during the vote on the Nolan recommendations on outside earnings in November. She said she did not know who hit her but "it was somebody who felt violently that the Government should be supported through thick and thin".
Ms Nicholson accused Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, of "shabby" behaviour for revealing she had asked him about her prospects for promotion to the ministerial ranks before she defected. "He is an irrelevancy to me now because of the way he has ... distorted three minor conversations I had with him over the last 15 years. That is a pretty shabby way to behave."
But her decision continued to anger ministers. "Were it not for the majority, it would be good riddance," said one minister.
Writing in the Independent today, Ms Nicholson accuses Mr Major of being "paralysed by indecision", waiting for an election which could not long be delayed, relying on "the worst, hard-faced populist instincts" and pandering to "Little Englanders" in the Tory party. She also accuses the Cabinet of "profoundly illiberal attitudes towards ethnic minorities".
Mr Major sought to reassure the One Nation Tories that the Budget strategy would meet demands for better education for poorer children, and improvements in public services in addition to tax cuts towards the 20p basic rate. He warned that Labour would threaten to throw away the success in store for 1996 - the lowest mortgage costs for a generation; increases in spending power for families; and higher spending on schools, hospitals and police.
Possible defectors, page 2
Leading article, page 16
Emma Nicholson, page 17
Andrew Marr, page 17Reuse content