Labour MPs' by-election ploy may drive Major into minority

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John Major could be heading a minority government within a month as Labour backbenchers prepare for a Christmas coup which could lead to a by-election defeat for the Conservatives.

Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, and Ken Livingstone, MP for Brent East, may start the process leading to an election in Wirral South this week, despite a decision by their party's leadership not to force the issue.

With the Ulster Unionists expected today to announce links with Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, and with another Tory MP threatening to resign, the move will put the Government under intense pressure.

The Wirral South seat, left vacant by the death of the Conservative MP Barry Porter on 3 November, could be won by Labour with a swing of 8.2 per cent - less than that achieved by the party in Staffordshire South-East earlier this year. That would leave the Government with a one-seat minority.

Despite the obvious difficulties of minority government, the Prime Minister tried to appear upbeat in an interview on GMTV when he said he was relishing the coming election campaign. In a dual economic history lesson and festive greeting, he told the people to enjoy Christmas because they had earned it after a "tough time". He claimed Britain could look forward to the best economic prospects for nearly half a century.

Mr Flynn said he would consult colleagues this week about the possibility of using the Christmas recess to serve a "certificate of vacancy" on the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. "The Government has no purpose in continuing except its own possible survival. The cause of suffering humanity would be helped by a by-election in Wirral South," he said.

Mr Livingstone said he would be keen to join Mr Flynn in his attempt. "I think the two of us would be quite keen to do this," he said.

A by-election writ can be moved by any member of Parliament, but if the House is sitting the matter can be put to a vote. If a certificate is served by two MPs more than two weeks before the end of the recess, the election goes ahead without one. Were Mr Flynn and Mr Livingstone to do this on Friday, the writ would be moved on 9 January and an election would take place on 30 January.

The Labour leadership is believed to have decided it would be unwise to force an election in the constituency. It is sticking by a parliamentary convention that it should give the Tories three months after Mr Porter's death before moving the writ itself. Even then Labour may decide not to act.

Any election before late February would be based on an old electoral register and could disenfranchise up to 25 per cent of the voters, which would not enhance Labour's chances. With rumours abroad that the Government is considering an election on 20 March or 10 April, a by-election might be no more than an irritation to voters, senior Labour sources said.

There will be more bad news for Mr Major today when the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, announces that he has struck a deal with Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party to be its representative in Westminster. The Ulster Unionist Party, on which the Government relies to keep it in power, says it will continue to consider each issue on its merits.