A poll by NOP for the Independent on Sunday suggests that the Tory general election lead of 23,017 will be turned into a Liberal Democrat one of nearly 18,000. This would be a swing of 35 per cent - the largest against a government in any by-election since the war.
It would dash Tory hopes of a political recovery after the vote of confidence which followed the Government's defeat in the Commons over Maastricht last Thursday. About 10 per cent of those likely to vote are undecided but, even if they all supported the Tories, the Liberal Democrats would still win. Another poll published today - by ICM for the Sunday Express - suggests a similar swing to that in the NOP poll.
Governments usually try to dismiss by-election defeats as protest votes. But the Christchurch poll suggests that voters there are so disillusioned with the Government that the Liberal Democrats would win at a General Election.
Sixty two per cent of voters in the Dorset constituency say they will support the Liberal Democrats on Thursday - compared with only 23.6 in the 1992 general election. And of these nearly three-quarters say they would vote Liberal Democrat again.
The findings come as Mr Major faced a threatened grass roots rebellion at the Conservative Party conference over the imposition of VAT on fuel, and continued tension over Europe.
About two dozen constituencies have tabled conference motions critical of the VAT move, which was announced by Norman Lamont when he was Chancellor.
Ministers are already canvassing the possibility that the second stage of the phased VAT imposition, due in 1995, will be scrapped. Under Mr Lamont's proposals, on which legislation has already been passed, VAT will be levied at 8 per cent next year, rising to the standard rate of 17.5 per cent the following year. This was designed to postpone revenue raising until the economy had pulled through from recession. But many strategists believe that the policy has proved disastrous, giving Labour the lengthy period of its two- stage implementation in which to attack the Government.
Meanwhile the fragile new Tory truce in the Tory civil war over Europe showed ominous signs of breaking up. Two heavyweight pro-Europeans, Lord Howe and Sir Edward Heath, launched attacks on the rebels who brought John Major to the brink of calling a general election.
Lord Howe said on BBC Radio: 'There is no future for John Major if he continues to seek compromise with a group of people for whom the word has scarcely no meaning.' The Prime Minister had withstood a battering which had been led by his predecessor. Sir Edward said: 'You can never appease these right- wingers - never, never, never. They will never play fair.'
But James Cran, one of the rebel leaders, warned that if they were not given a 'seat at the table' they would have to resort to the 'tactics of old'.
Mr Major is said to be reconciled to a probable defeat in Christchurch. He is also said to believe that the reasons for it are rapidly becoming obsolete - divisions within the party over Maastricht and the time-lag before electors feel the benefits of economic recovery.
The poll findings suggest that he is right about the second and wrong about the first. The economy and plans to impose VAT on fuel are at the top of voters' lists of discontents; divisions on Europe are at the bottom. The VAT issue was cited by 43 per cent of those deserting the Conservative party as the reason for their defection.
But there is a significant bonus for Mr Major's personal position in the poll, carried out before the Government's victory in the confidence debate. His leadership is well down the list of discontents and his replacement by another Cabinet member would make no appreciable difference.
Rupert Allason, MP for Torbay, has written to the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip to explain his absence during last week's votes. Mr Allason, who yesterday spoke to the BBC from a secret location, denied that he had been at his holiday home in Bermuda. He was surprised to find that he had been the only Tory rebel to abstain in the confidence vote last Friday, but admitted that the whip could well be withdrawn from him.
Further reports, page 2; Inside Story, page 20-21; Leading article, page 22; The natives are restless, Sunday ReviewReuse content