The Conservatives in Blackpool: Molyneaux warning on leadership challenge

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JOHN MAJOR was thrown a lifeline yesterday by James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who warned Conservative MPs that a general election would be threatened if the Prime Minister was replaced.

Mr Molyneaux made it clear that his party's nine MPs would vote with the Conservatives to bolster the Government's 17-vote majority in the Commons in return for Mr Major's continued commitment to the Union with Northern Ireland.

But at a fringe meeting in Blackpool, Mr Molyneaux warned 'ambitious and nerveless' potential candidates for the Tory leadership that the Ulster Unionists could withdraw their support and risk forcing an election, if Mr Major was replaced.

'We see no reason why we should terminate the life of this Parliament prematurely. We also take the view that a prime minister should not be evicted from No 10 by ambitious or nerveless parliamentary colleagues.

'It would be unwise to assume that our support for John Major would automatically transfer to a replacement,' Mr Molyneaux said.

'The shelf-life of a president or a prime minister has been reduced to 12 months - six months raising him up, and six months knocking him down. The democratic process cannot be left at the mercy of opponents who destroy one leader for apparent rigidity and now seek to remove another for alleged flexibility. As a nation, can we safely condone such manifestations of jealousy, meanness and spite, which at a time were regarded as alien to the British character?'

His remarks delighted Mr Major's supporters and fuelled speculation that the Ulster Unionists have reached a deal over Northern Ireland.