No early poll says defiant Major

PM puts on brave face after defection of Tory backbencher
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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The Government moved swiftly to scotch speculation of an early general election yesterday after the dramatic exit of Peter Thurnham from the Tory party and continuing disquiet among some backbenchers over its treatment of the Scott report.

The turmoil sparked by Mr Thurnham's renunciation of the whip was only marginally offset by a declaration of support by Sir Thomas Bingham, one of Britain's most senior judges, for the advice given by Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, on public interest immunity during the Matrix Churchill arms-to-Iraq affair.

Mr Thurnham, MP for Bolton North East, gave notice that he was likely to vote against the Government because of "appalling revelations" in the report. Rupert Allason, Tory MP for Torbay, likewise signalled a rebellion and called for a "shopping list" of changes in the machinery of government.

Mr Allason said: "There are some astonishing revelations ... If we're dissatisfied then in my judgement the job of an MP is to express that dismay."

He added: "Quite a lot of MPs share my dismay and we will vote accordingly on Monday."

The Prime Minister sought to put on a brave face on Mr Thurnham's departure, saying: "I am surprised to be honest. I had a lengthy conversation with Peter and Sarah [Thurnham] last evening and we have a very friendly conversation ... and we were going to meet again next week. I don't quite know what happened after I finished my meeting."

Mr Major's reaction to the Scott report was the clinching factor in a decision taken jointly by Mr and Mrs Thurnham and one of their daughters, Sophie. Mr Thurnham was prepared to listen to Mr Major's suggestion of an inquiry into the method of choosing Conservative candidates in an effort to meet one of the MP's grievances, but Mrs Thurnham urged her husband to ignore such blandishments in the light of Mr Major's attitude to Scott.

A welcome chink of light emerged for the Government when the three Democratic Ulster Unionist MPs declared they would abstain on Monday's crunch vote on Sir Richard's report, boosting the chances of the parliamentary arithmetic working in ministers' favour.

The outcome of the vote will now depend heavily on the nine Ulster Unionists who have yet to officially declare their voting intentions.

Government victory would help take the sting out of repeated Opposition demands for the resignations of William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Sir Nicholas, following strong criticisms in Sir Richard's report.

Sir Thomas, the Master of the Rolls, said in a BBC interview: "It was not the minister's function to judge whether the document should be disclosed or not if it was a document disclosure of which would, in the opinion of the minister, damage the public interest."

But for the second time in two days Sir Richard moved to defend his report, complaining to the BBC that his views on immunity in criminal trials had not been accurately reflected in the interview.

Labour immediately took issue with Sir Thomas's statement, pointing to a section of the report which it insisted showed that Michael Heseltine, the then President of the Board of Trade, did not believe disclosure would be injurious.

Mr Major was forced to dismiss predictions that the general election would be brought forward to this October, saying: "I have always expected to go through to the spring of 1997 and I still expect to go through to the spring of 1997."

The insistence came as Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, announced that five more Central Office press office staff had been engaged in preparation for the election.

Scott sell-out, page 2