Major risks long election game

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By Stephen Castle Political Editor

QUIETLY and unnoticed, amid the ferment surrounding the Scott report, one senior official at Conservative Central Office and one at Downing Street have begun work on the Tory party's manifesto.

This is not a sudden result of last Monday's knife-edge vote in the Commons. As one Cabinet source put it last week: "When the prime minister wants to go to the country, we will be ready." But when is that likely to be?

Technically, at least, the Prime Minister is likely to be able to continue in office until 1997. In last week's key vote he actually won without the backing of the nine Ulster Unionists MPs.

While the Conservative majority is down to two, and is expected to fall one further after the forthcoming Staffordshire South East by-election, that is a majority over all the other parties. To defeat the Government, Labour needs to ensure that all the opposition parties turn up and vote against the Tories.

There are, however, dangers for Mr Major in playing it long. His programme could easily get thrown off course. Last week, for example, he was defeated when the Lords voted in favour of splitting pensions between couples when they divorce.

A few months ago Andrew Lansley, until last year director of the research department at Conservative Central Office, and Paul Wheeler, a former election co-ordinator for Labour, wrote a paper on election timing for the Public Policy Unit, a political consultancy. They argued that, during the summer, "John Major will face an unenviable dilemma: either to plan to go through to 1997, hoping to exploit the benefits of a further Budget, and to use a further Queen's speech to define Conservative policies in areas like law and order, but with the risk of a parliamentary upset and of being boxed in; or to begin preparations for an autumn election".

If opinion poll deficits continue, Mr Major will try to soldier on to 1997. But if the polling gap between Labour and Conservative closes, Mr Major will consider an autumn poll. The main options are:

n Early autumn: There are fears among some Conservatives that the economy will perform as well this autumn as next spring, hence this looks more attractive. An election would be called immediately after MPs return from summer holidays. The poll would take place probably in early October.

n Conference springboard: This is the most likely autumn scenario, in which Mr Major's party conference speech on 11 October announces an election. The Budget is trailed, or called early the following week. The election takes place probably on 7 November, although 31 October and 14 November are possibilities.

n December election: The Government announces its Queen's speech and holds its Budget slightly earlier than usual. The election is called the following day, taking place on 5 or 12 December. This might seem a less cynical operation than a November election, but voters might resent the disruption in the run-up to Christmas.

n April 1997: Because new electoral rolls come into operation on 16 February, an election called before March is highly unlikely. April is more logical, marking the five-year milestone of the administration. New tax rises announced in the Budget would come through in the new financial year.

n Local election day: 1 May 1997 is the most likely option, if the Government holds together that long. The economy would have had time to improve and would have benefited from tax cuts. A high turnout would help the Tories fight back in the County Council elections held on the same day. That, however, would provide small consolation if Labour have anything like their current opinion poll lead.