It was from an early morning radio bulletin, and a typed note from Conservative Central Office, that the Prime Minister learnt the factual details of the desertion of a Tory heartland.
Crushing it may have been, but this was a political disaster waiting to happen. From the death of the sitting MP, Barry Porter, last autumn, the Tories produced a catalogue of indecision and poor management.
The party has not won a by-election since 1989 and, initially, senior Tories debated calling Wirral South before Christmas, so as to get the expected bad news over in the pre-holiday rush. On the insistence of Alastair Goodlad, the Chief Whip, who was worried about the effect in Parliament of the loss of a Tory seat, Mr Major stalled, even considering not holding the by-election at all.
When, finally, in the first week of January, he decided to go ahead with the poll, expectations were raised: a narrow Tory defeat or even a victory would, it was argued, provide the perfect springboard for the general election fightback.
But once campaigning began, optimism subsided and it was back to the familiar muddle. The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, said bluntly that the Tories expected to be punished. That was contradicted by his Cabinet colleague, Stephen Dorrell, who said they expected to win. As one senior Conservative put it: "Expectation-lowering was a sensible policy, but not if half the Cabinet was doing the opposite."
Despite having a strong local issue - grammar schools - the Tories' attack on Labour's "New Danger" landed few punches. The aftermath of defeat produced more confusion. In early interviews on Friday, Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, insisted that the result bore no relevance to the outcome of the general election. Within hours Mr Major had taken a different line on ITN: "If opinion does not change then we are going to have a Labour government and people will have to realise what a Labour government means."
This inability of the Tory machine to synchronise its message - brutally identified by John Redwood - has already provoked an inquest likely to lead to the effective demotion of Dr Mawhinney. One Tory aide said: "The Prime Minister is clear about his lack of presentational skills. Mawhinney will be kept off the airwaves and off the box." An ex-minister added: "He has not moved into the commanding role you would expect of a party chairman." Mr Heseltine is being given a leading media role.
Inside the Tory high command, too, Dr Mawhinney's grip is weakening. Lord Cranborne is being touted as chief of staff to Mr Major for the duration of the campaign. Two other trusted aides, Nick True, formerly of the Downing Street Policy Unit, and Jonathan Hill, the former political secretary, are expected to return. The former will write speeches, the latter will have less clear duties, posing a potential threat to Howell James, the current political secretary.
As one well-connected Tory put it: "What Major is doing is reassembling the leadership campaign team from 1995 and to an extent from 1990. It's a question, perhaps sensibly in the circumstances, of having familiar faces around him in the bunker."
But for the Prime Minister, options are fast running out. If the polls stay as they are, he will probably opt to take part in the television debate which broadcasters are vying for. But that could be high risk, especially as it could boost the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown.
The traditional Major post- by-election defeat manoeuvre, a Cabinet reshuffle, is out of the question, and policy changes look highly dangerous. Some Eurosceptics now argue that only a tougher, more aggressive line against a European single currency will secure their seats.
Such a move would, however, almost certainly provoke the resignation of the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, who illustrated his reluctance to shift his position only 10 days ago in a bruising semi-public battle with the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind. One Conservative apparatchik said: "I see no sign that the man in Hush Puppies, smoking cheroots, has changed his views".
Mr Major is left with two shreds of hope, that tax cuts and an improving economy can still change the public mood, and that something might turn up to put Labour off its stride. As one Tory cynic put it: "If you're looking for a re-think, a new strategy, forget it, there isn't one. And unfortunately we've been waiting for something to turn up for four years."Reuse content