Major's first battle-cry set for the ides of March

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The Independent Online
The Conservative Central Council in Bath on 14 and 15 March has been pencilled in by John Major as the ideal launch date for the general election.

Ministerial sources said last night that current planning is for the key speakers to be limited to the Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, his deputy, and Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman.

"That makes it look more likely that Major wants to use it to start the election campaign," said one Whitehall source.

The Central Council, offering a platform for Mr Major to give a rallying call to party workers and agents from all over Britain, could provide the springboard for an election on 10 April or 1 May.

The Ulster Unionists may upset his well-laid plans for an election timed to coincide with the implementation of the Budget tax cuts on 1 April, and better spring weather. If the Ulster Unionists, led by David Trimble, appear ready to force an early election, the Prime Minister may still try to beat them to the punch by calling an election on 20 March. Tory backbenchers said yesterday that Mr Major may not be a strategist, but he is a master tactician. They expect him to navigate his way to a date of his own choosing.

The other hurdles which could upset his planning include the by-election in Wirral South following the death of Tory MP Barry Porter. Mr Major does not want to go to the country after losing another seat, and, by convention, can delay the by-election for three months. Labour is planning to force the election in March, if it has not been called by the Tories.

The X-factor in Mr Major's plans is the state of his own party. After a row about cheating by government whips, Labour has withdrawn all "pairing" co-operation. "We will force ministers to come back from trips to vote," said a Labour source.

The battle will begin as soon as MPs return on 13 January from their New Year's break with the remaining stages of the Bill on fixed sentencing. The big hurdle is the Finance Bill, which will be given a second reading on 14 January. A government source said the odds against Labour defeating the Government on it, and forcing an election, were 4:1. Enough perhaps for a flutter by Tony Blair.