DESPITE an expected run of by-election defeats, starting with Christchurch later this month, senior Conservatives are saying they are confident that John Major's government can last its term.
According to one senior Tory, Mr Major's position is far more secure than much of the party and opposition MPs believe because Unionist MPs can be relied on to either vote with the Government or stay away during backbench rebellions.
The next such occasion will be the 26 July Commons and Lords votes on the adoption of the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty. Up to 40 Tories have rebelled on the treaty in the past.
Much has been made of the concessions to Ulster MPs during the protracted revolt over pit closures. That crisis passed when the Government won the final vote comfortably, Ulster Unionists deciding against opposing it after a pounds 10m deal was struck to secure concessions for heavy electricity users in Ulster. Earlier, they had been promised an electricity interconnector cable to Scottish Power.
The deals are being cited by Conservatives as evidence that Mr Major will survive future rebellions despite the predicted loss of Christchurch.
Other Ulster observers are more sceptical that a lasting watertight understanding could have been reached, dismissing the theory as a cynical public relations exercise geared to contain the panic that will ensue if, as expected, Mr Major's overall Commons majority is cut to 17.
The deeper worry is the possible effect on the deadlocked inter-party talks, which Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is seeking to revive.
Fears that the Government is dedicated to winning Unionist votes on issues unrelated to Northern Ireland were magnified last week when the Prime Minister vociferously denounced a leaked Labour Party document suggesting 'joint sovereignty' of the province with the Irish Republic.
Waves of disenchantment, page 8
Leading article, page 16