Ulster Unionist votes could be crucial as Major crisis deepens

 

MR JOHN Major has been plunged into a week long crisis, which could end in a House of Commons defeat over the Scott report and the near collapse of his parliamentary majority.

The British Prime Minister was clearing his diary last night for urgent talks with Mr Peter Thurnham MP, after his weekend threat to resign the Conservative whip. Should Mr Thurnham carry out his threat, Mr Major's overall majority would fall to just two. And that will drop to just one if, as expected, the Tories lose the East Staffordshire by election next month.

Ministers were left reeling by Mr Thurnham's intervention, as they battled to save Mr William Waldegrave, the Chief Secretary for the Treasury, and the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell in the continuing fallout from the "Arms for Iraq" affair.

Ulster Unionist votes could now be crucial, if Mr Major is to avoid a humiliating defeat when. MPs debate the Scott report next Monday. But the UUP leader, Mr David Trimble, offered Mr Major no comfort as he described Sir Richard Scott's findings as "damning".

Following boundary changes, Mr Thurnham's Bolton North East seat is bound to fall to Labour at the next election. And party sources say his threatened defection - he has had inconclusive talks with the Liberal Democrats - reflects his disappointment at not being interviewed for the vacancy at Tory held Westmorland and Lonsdale.

But ominously for the government, Mr Thurnham cited the Scott report in a statement claiming he was "increasingly concerned about falling values and standards of public service in the Conservative Party and the performance of the government". The report, he said, "and the way the government responded have only added to my dissatisfaction".

Mr Thurnham's announcement gave a fresh boost to the opposition parties who believe public opinion, and the Commons vote, can force the ministerial resignations ruled out by the prime minister last Thursday. An NOP poll for the Sunday Times found 64 per cent believe Mr Waldegrave should quit, while 62 per cent think the AG should also go.

And while Mr Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Mr Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, maintained the government's counter offensive yesterday - there were continuing signs of unease in Tory ranks. Following Sir Teddy Taylor and Mr Rupert Allason, Mr Richard Shepherd became the latest to make plain his disquiet at the government's intent to ride out the storm.

Mr Shepherd said the report held "no comfort" for Sir Nicholas Lyell. He condemned the "knowing misleading" of parliament. And he drew pointed comparison with the resignation of Lord Carrington, foreign secretary at the time of Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands.

Speaking on GMTV, Mr Shepherd said individual ministers had to seriously reflect on the criticisms contained in the Scott report: "It's not enough to hang your defence ... on a couple of rather friendly phrases when the burden of the report presents a dismal picture of the conduct within Whitehall."

And in a blistering attack on the government's handling of the report, he went on: "They had eight days in which to weigh up these contentions, and then they come to the floor of the House of Commons and essentially call for the resignation of the Opposition. It's a very curious thing, when we really wanted to see how they address these points." Mr Shepherd continued: "What about ministerial accountability? It is absolutely unnacceptable to mislead parliament and the public within our democratic system. That is an absolute trust."