Threat to force election `limited'

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A complete rupture between the nine Ulster Unionist Party MPs and the Conservatives, if it were brought about by Unionist anger over the documents, would imperil the precarious stability of the Government. But that does not mean the UUP could easily precipitate the early fall of John Major

Technically the Government has no majority at present; any coalition between the UUP and the nine whipless Tory rebels would be enough to defeat the Tories with support from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the other minority parties.

Labour has made it clear that it will not oppose the Government on any measure explicitly on the Northern Ireland process; but it would certainly welcome such backing on a domestic measure. And in the event of such a defeat, Labour could well be tempted to table a motion of no confidence, which the UUP might support.

This would be against the stated doctrine of James Molyneaux, that it is not the role of the UUP to bring down a government elected by a majority in Britain. But the Unionists might reason that life under Labour will at least be no worse.

However, the assumption at present must still be that a confidence vote would be won by the Government.

For Mr Major to be defeated the whipless rebels would have to vote with the Opposition. And that they will be reluctant to do, if only because it would mean standing as independent Conservatives in a general election against official Tory candidates with full party support.