Even before the government Chief Whip had moved the last-minute Commons writ for a Wirral South by-election on 27 February, Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, had dropped a clanger on his own candidate, saying he expected the Wirral voters to give the Tories a good hiding.
Later, as if to provide political balance, Labour faced both ways on the delicate issue of Wirral grammar schools, saying it would not abolish them but would give parents the right to get rid of them.
Unveiling the latest anti-Labour poster in London, Mr Heseltine said: "There are a lot of people around who see by-elections as an opportunity to kick the Government, and we would expect to see that." One party stalwart in Wirral South yesterday said Mr Heseltine might be of more use "if he kept his big gob shut".
Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, the duty Cabinet minister in the constituency yesterday, was more diplomatic: "Mr Heseltine was answering, no doubt, a different question," he said on a walkabout in Heswall, the most prosperous part of the constituency.
Mr Dorrell was less than certain when pressed to give a firm promise that the by- election would not be aborted by a decision to call a snap general election for March, to avoid humiliation in Wirral South and a possible Commons defeat in a confidence vote. The Independent asked Mr Dorrell seven times for a pledge that the by-election would be held on 27 February. At the second time of asking, he said: "I, er, there's, er, it's absolutely clear we're moving a by-election writ, er, because we intend there to be a by-election [sic] to be held."
Les Byrom, the Conservative candidate, told The Independent he had not got a clue as to whether John Major would pull the plug on his by- election campaign. "We have a by-election to fight and the people of Wirral South are very important in that respect," he said. "But there's also the national interest as well, and I don't know what the Prime Minister has in mind".
John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said in the constituency that it would be an "outrage" if Wirral South's voters were offered a by-election, only to have it withdrawn because of a Tory decision that a general election would help cut their losses. Labour's deputy leader also said Mr Heseltine had "thrown in the towel" even before the fight had begun.
But Labour descended into disarray of its own, with their candidate Ben Chapman saying local grammar schools were under no threat of closure "unless, as we have said, the parents choose to change the admissions policy. The parents can, if they so wish, have a ballot on the future of the grammar schools."
n Mr Major today will risk alienating Britain's European partners by taking the British election to Brussels with a warning that the social chapter is a "Trojan Horse" which will destroy jobs. The Prime Minister will use a conference of European businessmen to attack the Social Chapter and Labour's plans to end Britain's opt-out from European regulations.
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