After next week's by-election in Barnsley East, the Government will no longer have an overall majority in the House of Commons, and the Opposition will demand that all the machinery of law-making be changed to reflect the new parliamentary arithmetic.
Labour will insist that John Major can no longer have an automatic majority on all committees examining Bills and on all Select Committees because he no longer has a majority in the House.
The only way the Government could get out of this dilemma would be to call a by-election due in Wirral South in the perilous hope of restoring its single-vote majority. But senior Tories fear that the seat would go to Labour, intensifying the political pressure at Westminster. Conservative Central Office wants to delay the poll as long as possible, and would prefer not to have a by-election at all, leaving the constituency without an MP until the general election.
Labour believes it will be in a "no lose" situation after the 12 December poll in the safe seat of Barnsley East, which will return local council leader Jeff Ennis just in time to take his seat before Christmas.
If the Government reluctantly calls the second by-election, the "New Labour" candidate picked last week, former civil service executive Ben Chapman, stands a very good chance of winning. The Tories' 8,000-vote majority is vulnerable to a six per cent swing to Labour - only a third of the swing achieved in recent by-elections.
If the Government refuses to hold a by-election, Labour will insist that the Conservatives must give up its built-in majority on all Commons Committees. "It would be reasonable to begin an immediate review of the balance of Select Committees and Standing Committees," said a party spokesman. And if the Government rejects this demand, Labour would "move towards non- co-operation with the government."
Opposition Chief Whip Donald Dewar is studying ways to put pressure on the Government, and a full-scale resumption of the parliamentary guerrilla war waged by the late John Smith when he was leader three years ago is one of the options.
"We can make life very difficult for the Government," said a party strategist. "While we attack on those things where there is genuine disagreement, the Opposition also facilitates the day-to-day operation of the Commons. We could withdraw that co-operation."
Labour would assist the government on issues where it agrees, such as the measures to outlaw stalking and set up a register of paedophiles, but obstruct other Tory flagship policies such as the extension of selection in schools.
John Smith withdrew from the co-operation pact that normally exists between government and opposition for more than three months in 1993 in protest at John Major's high-handed parliamentary tactics.Reuse content