Major `planning his political departure'

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John Major will break with precedent and leave Westminster for a second career in banking when his term of office as Prime Minister ends, according to his closest friends.

They say the Prime Minister does not want a peerage and will not sit in the House of Lords.

Mr Major has also made it clear that although he has a strong attachment to Huntingdon, his constituency, he does not intend to follow Sir Edward Heath, now the father of the Commons, and stay in Parliament indefinitely.

Mr Major's desire to return to banking also highlights his deep dissatisfaction at the waypoliticians have been undermined by the allegations of "sleaze" which have hit the Tory party over the past 12 months.

"He is only 51 and feels that he has a lot to give,'' said a close friend. "There is a life outside politics."

Mr Major's private thoughts about relinquishing the country's highest political office could re-ignite speculation that he may stand down before the general election, if challenged. But that is ruled out by his close colleagues who say he intends to stayon until after the election.

It is also likely to resurrect questions about the role of former prime ministers once they step down. However, his recognition of a world beyond Westminster may endear him to his fans, who yesterday voted him into second place in a personality of the year competition organised by BBC Radio 4's Today programme .

If the Conservative Party wins the next election, friends expect Mr Major to step down within two years. He believes Baroness Thatcher's failure to do so before her 10th year in office was the cause of her downfall. It is also thought that Mr Major will continue as an MP and bow out at the following election.

Mr Major was an executive for Standard Chartered Bank until 1981, when he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to Home Office ministers Tim Raison and Sir Patrick Mayhew.

He became MP for Huntingdonshire in 1979 and has the country's largest Tory majority - 36,230.

The most recent former prime minister to abandon Westminster after losing office was the late Harold Macmillan, who waited 20 years before taking an hereditary peerage in the House of Lords as the Earl of Stockton in 1984.

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