John Major's administration is suddenly looking dangerously close to breaking point after the sensational defection last night of Emma Nicholson, the Tory MP for Devon West and Torridge, to the Liberal Democrats.
In a devastating blow to Tory hopes of of remaining in office for anything like a full term, the second defection of a respected Tory MP within less than three months almost certainly means that the Government's majority will be reduced to one before the Spring.
The fresh catastrophe for the Tories - as they prepared to launch a weekend newspaper advertising campaign masterminded by Charles and Maurice Saatchi - was also a huge boost for Paddy Ashdown's party in the heart of his West Country stronghold.
It was revealed last night that, in a skilfully executed cloak-and-dagger operation, Miss Nicholson was approached by the neighbouring Liberal Democrat Nick Harvey, MP for Devon North, a week before Christmas. Mr Harvey said last night he asked jokingly if rumours about her desire to defect were true. He said that she had replied: "I might if you ask me."
In a series of secret talks which then took place, he referred the matter to Archie Kirkwood, the Liberal Democrat chief whip and to Mr Ashdown, who held a clandestine meeting with her just before Christmas. Lord Holme, the party's leading strategist and a family friend, was also closely involved in the negotiations.
In a polite but also brutally candid "Dear John" letter to the Prime Minister last night, the strongly pro-European Miss Nicholson told Mr Major that her "conviction is now that I would be wrong in terms of my principles, the interests of my constituents and the future of the country" to go on supporting the Government in the Commons.
Promising that she would now be "quite often" voting with the Liberal Democrats, she had decided that she deemed it "proper and honest" to cast her votes from the Liberal Democrat benches. "Their thrust is now mine," she added. She said she would not resign and cause a by-election and she was not intending to stand at the next general election. But she did intend to stand as a Liberal Democrat at the European elections. In a public statement which she issued simultaneously, Miss Nicholson was more precise, saying that "I can no longer remain silent when I see Britain's future endangered by the Government's indecision and weak leadership on Europe and Britain's people neglected by a government which does not care."
Beside casting a grim pall over the Tories' chances of beating off the Liberal Democrat challenge in West Country marginals, Miss Nicholson's dramatic defection is also a powerful testament to the increasingly restive stance of pro-Europeans in the party. She attacked the Government's "shilly- shallying" on Europe as "rotten for Britain, bad for our people and abominable for trade".
But she also made it clear that Europe was not the only factor that laid behind her defection. She stressed her concern for the poor and disdavantaged - including asylum seekers who face cuts in their benefit. She also cited the "Quango state" set up by the Tory administration.
Downing Street last night referred all inquiries to Conservative Central Office which expressed "deep disappointment" at her decision. But it promised: "It will not deflect the Prime Minister and the party from carrying out the right policies for Britain for the full term of a Conservative government."
Immediately, Miss Nicholson's defection brings the government's technical majority down to three. But with likely defeats for the Tories in two impending by-elections, Hems- worth, a safe Labour seat, and Staffordshire South East, the seat vacated by Sir David Lightbown's death, it now looks certain to be down to one by March.
Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is on holiday in Australia, but issued a statement through his spokesman, saying: "Like Alan Howarth's defection before her, Emma Nicholson's defection confirms that One Nation Tories no longer feel able to stay in a party riddled with division and prey to the extreme right."
His deputy, John Prescott, said: "We are used to them changing seats. Now they have seriously started changing party. John Major has lost control and authority."
Liberal Democrat sources are jubilant at a coup which shows that they are as adept as Labour at managing a defection as important as that of Alan Howarth, the former Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, in October. A senior party figure said last night in response to rumours that Robert Hicks, Tory MP for Cornwall South East, was also considering defection, that there were no immediate further defections in the pipeline but added: "Anything is possible."
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