Tory Leadership Crisis: Timing is the key to Major's survival: Donald Macintyre looks at the political and electoral hurdles that lie ahead for the Prime Minister

The one sure fact about political planning in Downing Street is that John Major, his parliamentary private secretary, Graham Bright, and his able young political secretary, Jonathan Hill - who once worked for Kenneth Clarke - will have in their heads is the timing of all the hurdles ahead if the Prime Minister is to survive the year.

The first big hurdle is the local elections on 5 May. The outcome will not cheer the Tories; in the shire counties, district councils could fall to the Liberal Democrats; in London at least two boroughs could fall to Labour.

On the other hand, Labour won seats in the 1990 elections - for example in the North-west - which were never properly theirs. They won them at the height of Margaret Thatcher's personal unpopularity and when the poll tax was an issue.

In other words, Labour starts in some parts of the country from an artificially high base and could make fewer gains than the opinion polls would suggest. There is therefore some room for believing that Mr Major could absorb the shock of the local elections.

More crucial is the Eastleigh by- election - for which there is no good time for the Tories to move the writ - and the European elections, the first since those which in 1989 began the slide for Mr Major's predecessor, on 9 June.

The Tory high command's current plan is that Mr Major will adopt a much higher profile than Baroness Thatcher did then. That strategy may help the campaign - but it also runs the risk of associating him more closely with what seems certain to be some defeats.

In 1989, the Tories took a 32 per cent share of the vote. Most current polling puts them at about 28 per cent. After Euro-polling day there could well be a weekend of frenzied speculation about the leadership - based, oddly, not on the results but on a mixture of exit polls and, if it takes place on that day, on the result of Eastleigh. It's not surprising that the timing of Eastleigh is delicate; anything earlier than 9 June gives the Liberal Democrats a platform to build a bandwagon for the European elections. If it is on 9 June, then it could deprive Mr Major of some alibis for the Euro-losses - for example low turn-out.

This is certainly a period of danger for Mr Major. It is always possible that 'the suits' - Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the 1922 Committee; Richard Ryder, the chief whip, and others could knock menacingly on his door. But let's suppose not. Mr Major still has to decide whether to have a reshuffle to refresh his government. He could even try a 'night of the long knives', as Harold Macmillan did in 1962. And it is fraught with dangers; sacking any of the Cabinet ministers who expressed their dissent over the European voting compromise, for example, would create a powerful new focus of hostility on the right of the party.

Suppose he does manage a successful reshuffle, there is a relatively peaceful end to the session and everyone goes off on their summer holidays. What is still to come? First is the Scott inquiry which could claim more scalps, or at least further tarnish the Government's image. And there are two crucial votes on the critically divisive issue of Europe. One is on 'Own Resources' - which means an increase in European Union budget contributions and the other, ie enlargement, the very issue at the heart of the row which has just destabilised Mr Major. On the first vote, he could still probably force it through with backing from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. On the second there is the possibility at least that Labour will try to link support to the social chapter precipitating a second Maastricht-style crisis.

Finally, there is the November period, still the maximum moment of danger assuming Mr Major both toughs out his troubles and fails to stage a political comeback as some of his closest allies believe he could.

First, within 14 days of the Queen's Speech opening the new session, 10 per cent of the parliamentary party, or 34 MPs on current figures, have to write in confidence to sir Marcus saying there should be an election. Mr Major finds a proposer and seconder, then a challenger comes forward, who will have to declare the names publicly. And a contest is under way.

(Photograph omitted)

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Chelsea are interested in loaning out Romelu Lukaku to Everton again next season
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series