Election '97: Labour landslide

Four days to go before Britain decides - and the polls predict

John Major faces a spectacular political defeat on Thursday. A batch of opinion polls which put him as many as 24 points behind Labour have fuelled a new bout of turbulence in Tory HQ.

An Independent on Sunday/ MORI poll gives Labour a 24-point lead over the Conservatives, with Tony Blair's party on 53, the Tories on 29 and the Liberal Democrats on 12. An NOP poll in today's Sunday Times gives Labour an 18-point lead, on 47 points, with the Conservatives on 29, the Liberal Democrats on 16 and others on 9.

A Gallup poll in the Sunday Telegraph gives Labour 48, the Conservatives 31, the Liberal Democrats 13 and others 5.

An ICM poll in Scotland on Sunday shows that three Scottish Cabinet ministers face losing their seats. Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth is 21 points behind Labour in Stirling, Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, is 11 behind the SNP in Galloway and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind is 8 behind Labour in Edinburgh Pentlands. An ICM poll for the Observer indicates that Cabinet ministers Michael Portillo and Gillian Shephard could also lose their seats. ICM puts Labour on 47, Tories on 32 and Lib- Dems on 16.

Edwina Currie, the former minister, predicted a 100-strong Labour majority. She said a lot of the blame is "down to John Major". In the Express on Sunday she writes that when people "compare the records of Blair and Major, Blair comes across better". She predicts "a bloodbath in the Tory party" after 1 May.

With just four days to go, Mr Major was under pressure to make a last- ditch visit to Brussels campaign to stress his opposition to Euro-federalism.

The proposal, which caused a new row within the Conservatives' already rocky election machine, is opposed by Mr Rifkind, and other pro-Europeans.

Contenders to succeed Mr Major began making their presence felt, with John Redwood calling for a change in campaign themes to highlight education, and indications that Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, might refuse to serve in a Shadow Cabinet if Mr Major tried to remain leader in opposition.

With mounting evidence of division in the Tory high command over which issues to highlight in the final days of the campaign, two sources confirmed that the idea of a visit to Brussels by Mr Major had been canvassed by Eurosceptic colleagues, thought to include Lord Cranbourne, a close ally of Mr Major. Just three days are possibilities: tomorrow, when justice and home affairs are discussed in the European Union capital, and Tuesday and Wednesday, when foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg to debate the forthcoming inter-governmental conference. One source at Central Office said that the notion had been considered but discarded. Another said last week it was "not impossible" that the Prime Minister would visit the Continent before the general election.

Ironically, Labour considered a visit by Tony Blair to Brussels to illustrate his opposition to the integrationist agenda sketched out last week by Jacques Santer, Commission president. That was ruled out because Labour wanted a change of subject.

The unity of the Tory campaign was under mounting strain as John Redwood, who challenged Mr Major two years ago, called on Conservative Central Office to switch tactics and highlight Conservative proposals for schools.

If Mr Major is defeated, Mr Redwood is expected to announce early his intention to challenge for the Conservative leadership.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was said to have a campaign team on standby. Other potential contenders include the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke; the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine; the Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague and the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell.

Labour stepped up pressure on the Tories yesterday, producing the Conservatives' 200- page manifesto briefing document for party candidates. But the Conservatives dismissed opposition claims that this illustrated a pounds 10bn "black hole" in their finances, adding that the paper - distributed to 2,000 party workers - was prepared "on the same basis as our other exercise and is entirely consistent".

With four days to avert disaster there is evidence from inside Conservative Central Office of tension over the aggressive tactic adopted by the Tories when they accused Mr Blair of lying over pensions. Daniel Finkelstein, head of the Conservative Research Department, was said to be critical of the "slanging match" tone of the late campaigning.

Many Conservative MPs are convinced that the battle has been lost; one veteran of four elections said last week that a good result would be a Labour majority of 50 and that the Conservatives could be in a minority of as many as 150 seats.

Lord Holme, Liberal Democrat campaign manager, said: "It looks from all our evidence around the country as though the Conservatives are demoralised, finding it hard even to distribute leaflets and canvass, and heading for an historic defeat."

MORI's latest IoS/Sunday Mirror poll would give Labour a majority of 261 overall - not seen as realistic by any of the parties or by Robert Worcester, the chairman of MORI.

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