The NOP/Mail on Sunday poll suggests that Thurday's results will intensify Mr Major's problems as he battles to complete ratification of the Maastricht Treaty after a new setback emerged last night. A senior Brussels official has written to Euro-rebels agreeing with legal advice that the treaty opt-outs negotiated by Denmark have no legal force.
The leak of the legal opinion was greeted with jubilation by Euro-sceptics and threatens to derail the 'yes' campaign in this month's Danish referendum.
Mr Major's difficulties could be multiplied if the Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, allows a division on an amendment covering the Social Chapter, raising the prospect of a damaging defeat for the Government.
The poll shows the Liberal Democrats with a 16-point lead over the Tories in Newbury - easily enough to overturn the Conservative general election majority of 12,357. The poll findings represent a 17.5 per cent swing - more than twice what the Liberal Democrats need to win the seat. The telephone poll puts the Liberal Democrats at 54 per cent, Tories at 38, Labour at 5, and others at 3 per cent.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that while the poll was welcome news, nothing would be taken for granted. 'We still believe it could be very close between ourselves and
the Conservatives,' he added.
Liberal Democrat officials played down the results, pointing out that the sample was smaller than average and that by-elections are notoriously difficult to poll. But the findings were in line with evidence picked up by experienced canvassers.
There was no official comment from the Conservatives in Newbury but campaign officials said they were sceptical about opinion polls after the record of last year's General Election. Tory sources said the party was still confident of victory on Thursday.
If the poll findings are borne out, the Tory majority will be reduced to 19, increasing Mr Major's problems of party management. Senior Treasury officials are already complaining that the narrow majority is reducing the chances of cutting public expenditure because of the dangers of failure of controversial legislation, for example to cut benefits.
Although positive economic indicators have increased the Government's confidence, the poll results suggest that the optimism is not yet reflected in the electorate at large.
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