Major faces new desertion threat

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JOHN MAJOR faces a fresh challenge to his authority with a threat by two former members of the Government to stand as independent Conservatives at the general election.

Peter Thurnham, 57, MP for Bolton North East, and Andrew Rowe, old Etonian MP for Mid Kent, aged 60, are said to have ruled out formal defection but are considering challenging official party candidates.

Both senior back-benchers have served as parliamentary private secretaries to ministers - the lowest rung of government - but are unhappy with the so-called "lurch to the right" by the Major administration.

Mr Thurnham said "large numbers" of people where he lives in Kendal had urged him to stand in Westmorland and Lonsdale against the official Tory candidate, Tim Collins, who is media adviser to the Conservative party chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney.

Mr Rowe, a former director of community affairs at Tory Central Office, is thinking of doing the same. "I might consider going independent if, say, most of the things to which I have committed myself publicly were swept away," he told the Mail on Sunday.

Tory whips will interview the pair when MPs return from the Christmas recess on Tuesday, with the aim of "keeping them in the fold". Michael Trend, deputy chairman of the Conservatives, said: "They are both valued members of the party."

The whips are aware that Mr Thurnham, on the left of the party, was angry at not even being short-listed for the safe Cumbrian seat that went to Mr Collins. He plans to retire from marginal Bolton North East at the next election. Mr Rowe has already been selected for Faversham and Mid- Kent.

Tony Blair yesterday demanded a general election "the sooner the better", as conviction grew at Westminster that the Government will unveil a mini- budget in the summer before going to the country early.

Middle-ranking ministers are speculating that the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, could herald big tax cuts by an announcement in July, paving the way for an autumn poll. The Government could not get through a Finance Bill implementing a giveaway budget because of the summer recess. But it could use the prospect of tax cuts as a launch-pad for an election.

Conservative Central Office sources played down the likelihood of an early poll. "From where we stand," said a Smith Square insider, "as far as strategy is concerned, because of the need to show that the economic policy is working, we are determined to go through to 1997."