Parties plan for snap October poll

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The Independent Online
Political leaders are quietly preparing for the possibility of an October election, called without warning by John Major as MPs returned from their summer break. It would be an extraordinary gamble. Grey-haired opinion remains firmly against it. But the possibility that Downing Street is contemplating such a coup de theatre is now being taken seriously.

The Prime Minister would have to convince colleagues that the danger of a winter of political decay is worse than the danger of taking on Tony Blair, so far ahead in the polls. Up to now, John Major has seemed firmly committed to a spring 1997 election. But a mixture of bad political news on the horizon and intense frustration about Tory disloyalty may be beginning to change his mind.

One reason being discussed is economic. Government borrowing figures make it clear that the Chancellor's room for manoeuvre in the Budget will be very small. The consumer recovery is beginning to feel real, and is likely to continue through the summer. But beyond that, the autumn promise may be greater than the spring reality.

No one can be sure how long the boomlet can be safely maintained. Meanwhile, the other two big political issues - Northern Ireland and the EU - are likelier to produce more bad news for Mr Major over the winter.

Unless the atmosphere in Northern Ireland quickly improves, the Conservatives will come under strong pressure from the Unionists for the reintroduction of internment. Ministers seem likely to refuse, and relations with their only Westminster allies will worsen.

This affects Mr Major's handling of beef and the European question too, since his tiny and crumbling majority is vulnerable to an Opposition alliance in Parliament that includes the Unionists and Tory Euro-rebels. An inglorious, if sensible, armistice in the beef war reinforces the point that anti-European politics is a dangerous game which leaves him open to right-wing ambush. On the other side, it has deeply depressed some senior pro- European ministers, whose loyalty can no longer be counted on.

The final aspects of the October case are more personal. Mr Major remains livid about the antics of right-wingers as they manoeuvre for the leadership after the defeat they expect. According to one MP, he used the words "mad cow" while privately railing at Baroness Thatcher's funding of Bill Cash's European Foundation.

So far this year, he has plugged on. But for an allegedly boring man, he has a taste for political drama. In November 1994, goaded by European rebels, he threatened his party with a general election. Last summer, he stepped down as party leader to force a contest with the right. We haven't had the 1996 melodrama yet.

None of this means that he will go this autumn. Mr Major doesn't believe that Labour's poll lead is a true reflection of how it would perform in a real election, but he would need some sign of a pro-Tory trend to take such a gamble.

Yet if he believes that returning to Westminster for a winter session may involve further motions of no confidence, defections and rebellions, a disappointing Budget and another few months of leadership manoeuvring by the right - is it really worth hanging on?

All that is sure is the thought of an October poll has begun to fire Westminster imaginations. Tory conversations are already advanced about whether or not they would be better to cancel the party conference season by firing the starting-gun in late September, or use their own conference as a campaign springboard. The joke has been that it all depends on England winning Euro 96. What has changed is that is no longer entirely a joke.