Tories contemplate option of staying on as minority


SENIOR Tories were last night openly contemplating the possibility of limping into a general election on the back of a minority government.

As deep left right divisions heaped more turmoil on a divided party the British Prime Minister was being urged to hold out until 1997 to see through his Tory party's full five year term.

Mr Major, who has made it clear he will not be stampeded into an early election, said he would not "cut and run" in the face of political difficulties.

Senior party sources insisted he was undaunted at a wafer thin Commons majority that could drop to just one in the wake of two expected by election defeats.

Further defections or deaths among Conservative backbenchers would leave the government in a minority. The pressure from the right yesterday was for Mr Major to soldier on regardless - adopting more populist policies if necessary.

The failed leadership challenger, Mr John Redwood, said: "I would not like to see an early election. It would be better if the government can serve its full term or something near its full term. At the moment, it has a sufficient working majority to win votes of confidence. From time to time it may lose other votes on issues. . . but all the time it can win a confidence vote it should go on governing."

A fellow right winger and former cabinet minister, Lord Tebbit, added: "Mr Major is perfectly entitled to carry on as prime minister.

"It will be tough for him. There will be defeats for him now and again in the House of Commons, which would be embarrassing, but I am quite confident he would win a confidence vote.

The government has been thrown a parliamentary lifeline by the Ulster Unionists, who have made it clear they are not interested in forcing a general election by backing Labour in a confidence vote.

But bitter recriminations that followed the defection on Friday of the MP, Ms Emma Nicholson to the Liberal Democrats, spilled over into open warfare between the two wings of the Tory party.

Left wing MPs were infuriated by a firm denial from the Defence Secretary. Mr Michael Portillo, that the government was shifting to the right. Mr Portillo's outspoken anti Brussels speech at the Tory conference was highlighted by both Ms Nicholson and a fellow defector, Mr Alan Howarth as a key factor in their decisions.

"It is very silly to say that the party has tilted to the right - that is completely incredible," the minister said. "I think the party is probably much the same. We have a broad breadth of opinion within the party.

"There were many people who could object to Mrs Thatcher because they thought she was strident or ideological, who could not possibly have those objections to Mr Major who is so palpably moderate and all embracing in the way he wishes to run the party.

Mr Portillo, still seen as a standard bearer of the right, accused Ms Nicholson of having a "his tory of disloyalty" after switching horses at the last minute to back Mr Michael Heseltine in the 1990 leadership election.

The former prime minister Sir Edward Heath, called for an end to recriminations and the start off a concerted attempt to acknowledge the fears of many Tory backbenchers.

"We should be making sure that other people who have anxieties should have those anxieties removed so the public should see we are not a bitterly divided party, that we have pulled ourselves together and can work together," he said.

"There is no doubt at all that the party has moved to the right. That can't be denied . . . it may be denied, but if it is denied it is a false denial."

The shadow foreign secretary, Mr Robin Cook, said the public could see for themselves that the government was adopting a rightwing agenda designed for purely party political reasons.

. Members of the British royal family cut their trips abroad by a third last year, the London Times reports today. Basing its calculations on the daily Court Circular the paper says the 14 leading royals went abroad a total of 977 times in 1995, compared with more than 1,500 in 1994.

Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles reduced their engagements abroad from 698 to 462, but had more than 1,500 engagements in Britain, 25 per cent more than in 1994.

Only Princess Diana considerably increased her trips abroad from eight to 65. The paper pointed out that for part of 1994 she retired from public life.