Major vows to thwart coup by Tory right

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John Major will block any right-wing attempt to force a Conservative leadership challenge this summer even if he loses an early election.

A senior party source said last night that Mr Major would do his utmost to thwart a right-wing take-over of the party and would resist plans to whip up a stampede in favour of challengers such as John Redwood or Michael Portillo.

Speculation that the Prime Minister was preparing for a snap poll in March or early April was rife as the Commons returned from its prolonged Christmas break yesterday.

A Conservative "pre-election rally" is planned for Saturday to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of independence for India and Pakistan - seven months before the actual birthday on 15 August.

And with the Tory election juggernaut trundling along at an accelerating pace, the party yesterday advanced its Welsh conference by four months from the scheduled date of 13 June to 14 February, St Valentine's Day.

Mr Major, who returns from a visit to the Indian sub-continent today, is expected to address both conferences as part of the election build- up.

One argument that has been used against an early poll is that it would open the way for an early leadership challenge by supporters of Mr Redwood and other Tory right-wingers.

But the senior source told The Independent last night that the leadership election rules gave Mr Major an effective veto over any right-wing attempt to stampede the party into a rush decision on his replacement in the event of an election defeat.

Under the rules, a leadership election can only be forced if 10 per cent of the party's MPs call for a ballot within three to six months of the general election.The rules state that if 10 per cent of the new Parliament's MPs demand a ballot it must be held "not earlier than three months and not later than six months from the date of assembly of that Parliament".

Some right-wingers believed that meant there could be a leadership challenge to Mr Major in July if a general election was held in March or early April.

But the rules then add that the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, who is responsible for the conduct of all ballots, shall tell the leader an election is required, "and together they shall determine the actual date".

This critical escape clause provides Mr Major with the essential delaying power to stall a leadership ballot until the following October, even if he decides on a March general election. In the view of Mr Major's friends, that would give the party enough time to thwart right-wing ambitions to take over the party. Senior Conservatives believe Mr Major has no intention of resigning the leadership immediately in the event of an election defeat, as the former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, did in 1992.

Mr Kinnock announced his resignation as Labour leader on the Monday after polling day, unlike Michael Foot, who had held on until the autumn party conference following his general election defeat in 1983. The Foot precedent is favoured by the Major camp.

Yesterday, Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, maintained the election momentum at a press conference.

They said a threatened legal challenge to Labour's proposed "windfall tax" on the privatised public utilities left a pounds 1.8bn "black hole" in Labour's spending plans. Mr Heseltine said Labour could only have received legal advice that it could go ahead with the tax on the basis of firm factual definitions about the companies that would be targeted and the "excess profits" that would be subjected to the tax. He said if Labour had the answers to those questions, it should publish them. A party strategist said last night that the Tories would continue to pile pressure on the windfall tax, which Mr Major yesterday described as "a pig's breakfast".

Speculation about the election timetable date was rife at Westminster yesterday, with 20 March and 10 April remaining the favoured alternatives to 1 May.

Mr Major would need to call a 20 March election by 24 February and 12 March would be the last day for the announcement of a 10 April poll, after which 1 May would be the only possible alternative.

A Labour source said last night they were sceptical about Mr Mawhinney's promise that the Wirral South by-election would be called by 3 February, within three months of the death of the Conservative MP, Barry Porter.