Tory threatens to bring down Major

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A second Conservative backbench MP was last night threatening to withdraw his support from the Government, and said the general election should "come sooner rather than later" to stop the "drift" in John Major's government.

Terry Dicks, MP for Hayes and Harlington and a former ministerial aide, told The Independent he would take the whip from David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, in a vote of confidence on an Ulster issue, even if it brought down the Government.

Mr Dicks is angry at Mr Major's refusal to rule out a single European currency and furious over the use of his name by "cheating" Government whips to win a vote on European fishing policy; but the crunch for him is the risk of more concessions to Sinn Fein in the Ulster talks. "We have given way all down the line. If there is a vote of no confidence, if the Ulster Unionists don't go with [the Government] on Northern Ireland, I will take their advice on Northern Ireland, rather than the Conservative Party on that."

"I would be surprised if we don't have an election by mid-March. Some of my colleagues are saying the sooner the better... It is just drift now." Although Tony Blair has repeatedly insisted he will not bring the Government down over Northern Ireland, he gave a pledge this week to take every opportunity to force an early election, and the Ulster Unionists' nine MPs will play a crucial role.

Mr Dicks is regarded as a malcontent by government whips, but his threat to join Sir John Gorst, the Tory MP for Hendon North, who has withdrawn from the Tory whip over a local hospital row, has to be taken seriously by the Government with its majority wiped out by by-elections and defections. Mr Dicks, who is stepping down at the election, said: "I have said to the whips, they are playing their cards close to their chest; I am going to do same.''

Ministers may be forced to listen to backbench calls. On new year's eve, John Marshall, the Tory MP for Hendon South, wrote to the Chancellor to ask for up to pounds 15m for hardship payments for haemophiliacs who have contracted hepatitis C but who are denied the compensation offered to haemophiliacs with Aids.

The lack of a majority is opening ministers to ransom from backbenchers. The Prime Minister will try to rally his troops in an interview on Sunday on BBC's Breakfast with Frost. It will coincide with the launch of the Tory campaign on the "folly" of Labour policies, with no let-up to the election.

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, was out campaigning in marginal seats in West Yorkshire, in spite of the snow. "I am here like all Labour candidates who want to get Labour's message across. It is one that is as white as this snow, unlike the Tories."

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