'Snubbed' Tory MP on brink of quitting whip

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Westminster Correspondent

Peter Thurnham, Conservative MP for Bolton North East, is on the verge of resigning the Party whip and reducing the Government's already wafer- thin majority still further.

The defection would reduce the Tory party's majority to three. This would be reduced still further to two if, as expected, the Tories lose the Staffordshire South East by- election.

Mr Thurnham is understood to have been waiting to see how the Scott report on arms-to-Iraq is received by the public before confirming his decision to leave the party and sit as an independent Conservative.

His decision to leave would cast further doubt on the Government's ability to hold the line in the debate on the Scott report at the end of this month. Already, some Conservative MPs troubled by the implications of the report are privately indicating they may vote against the Government.

For some months Mr Thurnham has been debating whether to quit the party, following what he considers to be a snub when he applied to be the prospective candidate for Westmoreland and Lonsdale. That seat will be vacated by Michael Jopling at the next election.

Mr Thurnham announced his intention to quit as the Bolton North East MP at the next election because of boundary changes in his constituency where he has a majority of just 185.

He had hoped to fight Westmoreland where he has lived for many years and was a local councillor until going to Westminster in 1983, but was desperately hurt last July when he was not interviewed as a prospective candidate for the Westmoreland seat. The eventual winner was Tim Collins, an aide to John Major who, unlike Mr Thurnham, does not hail from the area.