John Major's future may lie in unionist hands

 

MR JOHN MAJOR is now leading Britain's Conservative government into the most uncertain 12 months it has seen since coming to power in 1979. The shock weekend defection to the Liberal Democrats of a prominent backbencher, Ms Emma Nicholson, reduces Mr Major's House of Commons majority to five. Two March by elections are expected to bring it down to just three.

It seems likely that Mr Major could be leading a minority administration by the end of this year. He has said that he is determined to continue in office until a general election in the spring or early summer of 1997. But there is growing speculation that mores defections and deaths, a well timed confidence vote or some unforeseen calamity could force an early poll and see the Labour leader, Mr Tony Blair, in Downing Street by the end of this year.

There is one political reality which must give Mr Major some hope: Ulster Unionists appear to believe at the moment that it is better to have a weak Tory government in power than a strong Labour administration. Like small parties everywhere, they know that, in a hung parliament, their influence is at its greatest.

This, in turn, is likely to restrict Mr Major's room for manoeuvre at a very crucial time for the Northern Ireland peace process. He may not pursue an unashamed unionist agenda, but any temptation to launch a bold initiative will be tempered by the need not to cause grave upset to the unionist MPs.

For Mr Major, the political problem within his own party appears insoluble. Used to dealing with threats from his Europhobe right wing, he now faces defections from his party's pro European liberal "one nation" group.

Having spent several years appeasing his party's anti European right, the threat to his political survival comes from those alienated by that process of appeasement. Ms Nicholson's parting statement said that she had quit because the Conservative Party was no longer "the one nation party of Harold Macmillan", which had "compassion for all members of society".

Mr Major has now set out to appease his pro European left, yesterday restating his commitment to the values of "one nation" Conservatism; promising to improve public services and giving a very upbeat economic assessment for 1996. His New Year message was written before Ms Nicholson's defection was announced and now seems akin to trying to close the stable door after one horse has bolted and others are considering making a break for it as well.

Ms Nicholson has warned that there could be up to six other Tory MPs who might be prepared to defect. In addition, actuaries have predicted that five or six more Tory MPs could die during the year.

Mr Major's senior ministers and advisers are reported to be preparing for a minority government scenario before the end of the year. As the majority falls to zero, his survival depends more and more on the support of smaller groupings in the Commons. With nothing to offer Scottish or Welsh Nationalists, Mr Major's salvation seems to lie primarily in the hands of the UUP.

Mr David Trimble's party appears willing to continue supporting the government as long as Mr Major sticks to the existing policy of insisting on some decommissioning of IRA weapons before Sinn Fein can become involved in all party talks. The British government's interest in the UUP proposal for an elected assembly in the North, despite nationalist opposition, should also help to ensure UUP support.

Minority governments have survived for considerable periods in Britain before. James Callaghan's minority Labour government lasted from 1976 to 1979 with the help of a pact with the Liberals. But life for a minority government will be demoralising. It means constant appeasement of the extremes, constant head counts, sick MPs being wheeled into Commons divisions and ministers flying back regularly from foreign visits to save the government. Next May's local elections could produce even more despair for the Tories.

With the government majority in danger of being wiped out very fast indeed, simple arithmetic says that the nine Ulster Unionist votes are of crucial importance. If the nine UUP MPs were taken from the anti government column and added to the government's tally, a majority of three becomes a majority of 21.

The arithmetic will be enough to alarm the Irish Government, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, all of whom would like to see a British government which could handle the peace process without having to worry about ensuring Commons support from the UUP.

Irish pressure on the British government to give way on the arms decommissioning issue is likely to increase when the Mitchell commission reports later this month. A British prime minister who knows he needs unionist votes to survive may be even less inclined to give in to such pressure.

However, the British government's need to appease unionists may not be as great as the sums suggest. Ulster Unionists have already said that they will not seek to bring down the government and at the weekend stated that they would not back the Labour Party in any confidence vote. They seem content to support the government - so long as it suits them.

Their pivotal position may be enough to ensure British caution on the peace process is not abandoned. The proposal of the UUP leader, Mr David Trimble, for an elected assembly in the North is being given serious consideration by the British, despite the opposition of the SDLP and the Government's coolness towards the idea.

It cannot be assumed, however, that the British government will adopt a cynical view and see the peace process as something which can be compromised for the sake of clinging to power. If an issue arises where he must choose between doing the "right thing" for the peace process or doing whatever will keep the unionists happy, Mr Major may indeed do the latter, but this is not certain.

Faced with the constant fear of fading from power after a series of humiliating defections, by election losses and accidents, Mr Major could choose instead to stand on the only high moral ground he has. The unionists, might back off if the alternative is a strong Labour government. If they did not, Mr Major would at least have gone on an issue of his choosing.