Labour looking to force early election

Tories in trouble: Nicholson's defection leaves Government increasingly vulnerable to vote of no confidence
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Chief Political Correspondent

The first big test for the Government following the defection of Emma Nicholson to the Liberal Democrats could come early in the new year with a re-run of the issue on which it was defeated just before Christmas - the opening of British fishing waters to European fleets.

The defeat, although embarrassing and morale-jolting, was confined to a technical matter, but ministers fear that Labour may now put down a motion of no confidence in the Government's conduct of its fisheries policies to force a full no-confidence vote with the intention of forcing an early election.

Such a move would attract the support of the Ulster Unionists, a prominent Ulster Unionist MP confirmed last night. The Liberal Democrats including Ms Nicholson would be expected to vote with Labour.

The Government defeat, brought about by a Tory rebellion, and Ulster Unionist opposition, underlined the vulnerability of its majority. After Ms Nicholson's defection, Mr Major is faced with the prospect of a by- election defeat in Staffordshire South East, the seat held by the late Sir David Lightbown, reducing the Government's majority to three.

Another by-election defeat, or another defection, would all but wipe out Mr Major's majority. He would then have to depend on alliances with the minor parties, led by the Official Ulster Unionists. Unlike the Callaghan government of the late 1970s, he has nothing to offer the Scottish and Welsh nationalists to secure their support in a no-confidence vote.

Mr Major's leadership will be put on the line in May, when the Tories expect to suffer more disastrous losses in the local elections. If the party's morale cracks, Labour will be on the lookout for any opportunity to bring the Government down with a no-confidence vote.

Senior government sources said last night that Mr Major expected to lose his working majority in the Commons before the end of 1996, but was still planning to struggle through to a general election in May, 1997.

As Ms Nicholson's defection showed, Mr Major is playing a careful balancing act between the One-Nation Tories, and the Euro-sceptics, who could force a general election, although it would be almost certain political suicide for many of them. Labour's plan is to inflict as much damage as possible, in the hope that it will wear down the Government.

Labour sources confirmed that the party leadership was also preparing for a full-scale vote against rail privatisation early in the new year. A number of One-Nation Tory MPs warned before Christmas that they may vote against the Government on the issue.

However, the Independent has learnt that the threat of a rebellion has receded following the court ruling that the director of franchising for the new privatised services will have to protect the existing timetable.

The potential rebels, led by Sir Keith Speed, a former minister, were satisfied with assurances they were given in a private meeting by Sir George Young, the Transport Secretary, that more rolling stock could be provided as a result of privatisation. Others who were uneasy about privatisation included Tim Rathbone, Stephen Day and Nicholas Winterton.

The Liberal Democrats will vote with Labour against rail privatisation but Mr Major can count on Ulster Unionist support, because it does not directly affect Northern Ireland.

Senior Labour sources said there were parallels between Mr Major's difficulties and the last days of the Callaghan administration before it was brought down by a single Irish nationalist abstention on a no-confidence vote in 1979.

Despite the Government's troubles, Labour is wary of predicting an early election. "We will take every opportunity we can," a leadership source said. "There was a whiff of defeat about the Callaghan government. It was a question of when, not if, it would be defeated. I think John Major is a very dogged man. We don't expect them to go on until 1997, but that is what he is determined to do. He needs to do that, to get another Budget, but his problem is that he is no longer in control."