Government business managers yesterday decided not to call the by- election on 5 May in an effort to prevent the Liberal Democrats from using a win in Eastleigh as a means of maximising the bandwagon effect in advance of the European elections.
Although there was no official confirmation last night, it was assumed in Westminster that having allowed the last day for calling a 5 May by-election to pass without moving the writ, the Government intends to have it on 9 June.
Ministers are also keen to stretch the Liberal Democrats' resources as thinly as possible during the European elections. Four by-elections in Labour-held seats are also expected on the same day.
But ministers still face a possible challenge from the Liberal Democrats, who could themselves move the writ for Eastleigh in the second week of May in an attempt to force an earlier date for the by-election.
By convention the writ should be moved within three months of the death of a sitting MP and 9 May is three months after the death of Stephen Milligan, the former member.
Sir David Steel, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, said last night that the Tories were 'in danger of bending the rules, which were brought in as a result of their political manoeuvrings' over the Berwick-upon Tweed by-election in 1973. As Liberal chief whip, Sir David secured a Speaker's conference which decided on the three month period.
Assuming that the by-election does take place on 9 June despite the opposition of the Liberal Democrats - who are still the favourites to win it - Mr Major still faces the problem that a resounding defeat for the Tories could help to fuel a weekend of crisis and speculation about his leadership.
Labour has made it clear to union leaders that a canvassed figure of pounds 4.05 per hour for a minimum wage will not be included in policy documents to go before the party's economic commission. The figure was excised in line with instructions by John Smith, the party leader, not to make firm and costed policy commitments far in advance of the next general election.