Intimations of mortality for Tory majority

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John Major's majority in the House of Commons is unlikely to survive 1996, according to a forecast from a firm of actuaries which estimates that four Conservative MPs can be expected to die next year.

After the death of Sir David Lightbown earlier this month, the number of Tory MPs is now 327, down from 336 elected at the last election. Mr Major's majority in the Commons is five, but if Labour wins the by- election in Staffordshire SE caused by Sir David's death and holds Hemsworth, the vacancy caused by the death of Labour's Derek Enright, the majority would be cut to three. It could then only take the death of two Tory MPs to erode the Government's majority altogether. The Government has not won a by-election in five years.

"The odds would be stacked against Tory MPs even if they were average members of the population," said Andrew Templeton, research partner of Lane, Clark and Peacock, which prepared the forecast using the average mortality rates for men and women of the same ages as Conservative MPs.

If Mr Major loses two MPs, he would depend on the support of Sir Richard Body, the disaffected MP for Holland with Boston in Lincolnshire, who resigned from the parliamentary Tory party last year in protest against a rise in the European Union's budget. It is expected that Sir Richard would support the Government in a no-confidence motion, the loss of which would trigger a general election.

But the death of three Tory MPs would force Mr Major to rely on the Ulster Unionists. David Trimble, the Unionists' leader, was unforthcoming about terms for his party's support when asked at a Westminster press lunch recently.

His MPs have voted against the Government in almost all the big Commons defeats of this parliamentary term, including this month's end-of-session vote on European fishing policy and last year's defeat of the Government's plans to raise VAT on domestic fuel.

The forecast will increase speculation about Tory plans to manage their precarious parliamentary position. It has recently been reported - and dismissed - that ministers are considering a summer Budget next year, so that tax cuts would pave the way for an autumn general election.

Speaking before the publication of the actuaries' estimate, Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader, made his prediction: "In my bones, I don't think the Government is going to get through the next year."