Major may go to the polls early

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The Independent Online
A surprise snap election is expected by some ministers and senior MPs across the Commons as John Major faces the certain loss of his overall parliamentary majority in the Barnsley East by-election in 10 days' time.

While many politicians, and much of the media, have accepted 1 May as the fixed date for the election, strong arguments are now being made for the Prime Minister to go to the country between the end of February and mid-April.

Critically, David Trimble's Ulster Unionists are not happy with the "painful" prospect of a general election held on the same day as their local elections - which are contested by proportional representation, and generally favour the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists.

But the Ulster Unionists argue that it will not come to that. They believe Mr Major will not want to risk Commons defeat, or face accusations that he has made "sleazy deals" to help him stagger through to May, and that he will prefer to call the election at a time of his own choosing.

The date for the election could well hinge on the result of Merseyside's Wirral South by-election, caused by the death of the Tory backbencher Barry Porter on 3 November.

The loss of that seat would drive Mr Major into a one-vote Commons minority, the first time the Tories would have been deprived of a majority since 1979.

Parliamentary convention dictates that the writ for a by-election should be moved within three months of the vacancy, followed by a three-week campaign, suggesting a by-election on 30 January.

If the Conservatives do not move the Wirral South writ by early February, they will be accused of cowardice and will open the way for Labour to force a Commons vote on the issue.

The Merseyside seat would fall to Labour on an anti-Tory swing of 8.2 per cent - and defeat would put the Government in constant fear of a Commons ambush, and the humiliation of a successful censure motion that would force an immediate election.

But some senior Conservatives are arguing that if the party were to win Wirral South, that could prove the springboard the party needs for an early general election.

After Harold Wilson won a surprise victory in the Hull North by-election on 27 January 1966, he went on to announce a March election one month later - in which he won a clear-cut majority.

Reflecting the confidence felt in the higher reaches of the Conservative Party, Michael Heseltine said yesterday that the country was heading for a "record Christmas".

House prices were moving up, negative equity was becoming a thing of the past, unemployment was falling, and retail sales were rising.

"All the classic indicators are that people know that things are now much better, and that always leads to an improved political climate," the Deputy Prime Minister said.

He told BBC television's On the Record that the Tories were still not in the lead, but there was "a drift of opinion - and you can see it happening".

The other argument for an early election is the difficulty now being faced by Mr Major with the loss of his overall majority.

Labour's sure-fire victory in the Barnsley East by-election, on 12 December, and the loss of Mr Major's majority, will wipe out the Government's power to drive through essential amendments to some of its own legislation - including the budgetary Finance Bill.

The rules of the House state that once the Government loses its overall majority, it cannot command a majority in any of the standing committees which give consideration to legislation. The Finance Bill would fall foul of that rule.

Mr Heseltine made it clear yesterday that when the election does come, it will be fought with aggression. "You know that definition of a politician," he said. "An American politician waits to see which way the crowd is running, rushes in front, and shouts, `Follow me'. That's Tony Blair. You cannot trust a man like that to run this country."

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