MP is `driven out by Tory moral decline'

`Dear Prime Minister...I cannot in good faith remain a member of the party'
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Peter Thurnham, MP for Bolton North-East, last night resigned the Conservative Party whip, reducing the Government's majority to just two. His resignation letter, passed to the Independent, sent a blunt message to John Major: "Loyalty has its limits."

He became the third MP in recent months to desert the party and his decision casts an immediate shadow over the Government's hopes of winning Monday's crucial vote on the debate on the Scott arms-to-Iraq report. He said last night he would be voting against the Government because he felt the two ministers most criticised in the report, William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell, should have been made to quit.

His resignation was a massive humiliation for the Prime Minister, coming immediately after their one-and-a-half-hour meeting in Mr Major's rooms at the House of Commons. He told the Independent that Mr Major had failed to resolve his deep dissatisfaction with the party machine and his unhappiness at the Scott inquiry's findings. Mr Thurnham's announcement came, despite a promise from John Major to address one of his key grievances by launching an inquiry into the party's method of choosing candidates.

He will now sit as an independent MP although Liberal Democrats yesterday were hopeful that he may join them in the near future - something Mr Thurnham, a Conservative MP since 1983, did not rule out. The Government majority is expected to drop to just one after the Staffordshire South East by- election.

Mr Thurnham will travel North later today to explain his resignation to senior officers of the Bolton constituency association, who last night angrily accused him of betrayal.

In their discussion, Mr Major, accompanied by Greg Knight, the deputy whip, and Mr Thurnham, who had his wife, Sarah, by his side, discussed what both sides acknowledged were problems within the party administration, especially the way in which prospective candidates are chosen. The Prime Minister and Mr Knight promised a review of selection procedures, prompted by Mr Thurnham's failure to be given an interview for the vacant Westmorland and Lonsdale seat where he lives.

Depending on the outcome of that review, Mr Thurnham said he may be prepared to return to the party fold. He rebuffed an appeal from Mr Major to delay his move for three months.

He had already indicated he would not be seeking re-election for Bolton North-East, which is highly marginal and will become more so with boundary changes. However, he was bitterly disappointed not even to secure an interview for Michael Jopling's safe Westmorland seat, which went to Tim Collins, the former director of communications at Conservative Central Office.

But he stressed that the Nolan inquiry into declining standards in public life and the Scott report had finally made up his mind to take the grave step of resigning the party whip. "After reflecting further on our discussion on Scott and other current issues, and on your acknowledgment of the depths of the problems in the Conservative Party I have decided that I must, in good conscience, resign the Conservative whip in the House of Commons," he wrote in his letter.

He paid tribute to his local constituency association and to those who helped him found the Conservative Disability Group. "However, loyalty has its limits," he wrote.

During their meeting, over orange juice, Mr Thurnham pressed the Prime Minister over his backing for Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas. Mr Major said he would stand by them.

Earlier, senior Tory sources had admitted that the best they could hope for, was a "breathing space". But Mr Thurnham's decision to go ahead with his original plans dashes lingering hopes of Government business managers that he would reflect over the weekend and possibly meet Mr Major again before Monday's vital Scott vote.

Liberal Democrat sources indicated no formal talks with Mr Thurnham had taken place but said that if he wanted to talk to them in the future they would be prepared to see him. Archie Kirkwood, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, said: "I am not surprised that someone with a conscience like Peter Thurnham now finds it impossible to support this government. He is typical of many thousands of others up and down the country."