John Major became the Prime Minister of a minority Government early today after Labour swept home to a comfortable victory in the Barnsley East by-election.
Labour's candidate, Jeff Ennis, held the seat, the party's fourth safest, with 13,683 votes on a very low turnout. His nearest rival was the Liberal Democrat David Willis, with 1,502 votes. The Conservatives, who were second at the general election, were forced into third with 1,299 votes while Ken Capstick of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party polled just 949.
One-third of the 53,000 electorate voted, less than half the level of the 1992 general election when the poll was 72.7 per cent.
The result officially wiped out the Government's Commons majority over all the other parties. A Tory backbencher, Sir John Gorst, has rejected the Tory whip in protest over a local hospital, leaving Mr Major's party with an effective minority for the first time since the Tories came to power under Baroness Thatcher.
Mr Ennis said the Government should now resign. "After 17 years, everyone is looking at the dwindling Tory majority. They think it's all over - it is now," he said.
Welcoming the result, the Labour leader, Tony Blair - in Dublin meeting other European politicians during the European Union summit - promised to step up the attack. "The Government majority has gone and we will continue to pile on the pressure until the Government has gone too."
Lord Archer of Weston super Mare, the former deputy Conservative Party chairman, took some comfort from the low turn-out, but conceded: "If we go into the next election as divided as we are today we will lose and deserve to lose. We have got to pull together."
Later today Labour's deputy leader John Prescott plans to celebrate the victory by taking Mr Ennis, the former Barnsley council leader, to campaign in Wirral South where a second by-election is pending.
With Labour defending a massive majority in Barnsley East after the death of Terry Patchett, the result was never in doubt, but the loss of the Government's official majority will come as a further debilitating psychological blow.
It underlines the importance of the Ulster Unionists led by David Trimble in propping up the Government in no- confidence votes until a general election in the Spring.
Tory MPs believe Mr Trimble could help bring the Government down in March, forcing a general election in April, to distance themselves from the Government before the polls, and avoid being outflanked by the Democratic Unionist Party led by The Rev Ian Paisley.
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