Making A Difference

Losing The Majority

Nicholson's defection spells trouble for the Conservatives

Losing The Majority
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The British prime minister is now left with a majority of three, and with two ensuing by-elections in the weeks ahead, he may be faced with the prospect of a majority of one. And what if, as a leading actuarial firm predicts, a couple of Conservative MPs die? What if, as Nicholson hopes and political pundits speculate, more ruling party MPs decide to cross the floor? Major is a prime minister under siege.

The ruling party bosses, including Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, have implied that Nicholson, a former party vice-chairman and Tory backbencher, decided to walk out of the party not on principle but  pique over being denied a ministerial job. These criticisms seem to have been overshadowed by her profile as an outspoken social activist who was more aligned with the liberal wing of the Conservative Party.

Nicholson, who joined politics at the age of 45, has been a computer professional for 13 years and, as reports put it, "gave herself to primitive keyboards and trips to fix circuits in sweaty African countries". In her subsequent role as a director with Save The Children Fund, her eight-year tenure saw the organisation's income go up from £3.5 million to £42 million. She worked for the cause of Romanian orphans, visited the marshy border between Iran and Iraq after the Gulf war and brought along with her a young Iraqi boy to have his burnt face reconstructed. Her interest in feminist issues—manifest in her support for a bill to ban Page Three Girls, semi-nude pictures and comments on page three of tabloids, her outspoken support for relaxation of the abortion law and criticism of the Major government's tough stance against income support for single mothers—present her a shade different from many of the Tory MPs. Many of her colleagues were upset when she supported the bill requiring MPs to disclose their outside earnings.

While breaking free of the Conservative Party, Nicholson has launched an all-out attack accusing the party of pandering to racism. She says that she was "heavily criticised" when as the party's vice-chairman, she dared to go out and recruit Asian and black women. Nicholson, who cited the government's dithering attitude on Britain's integration with the European Union as her main reason for parting company with the Tories, says she will not contest the next general elections for the House of Commons but would like to be a member of the European Parliament.

For Major, it's just the beginning of his troubles. When the House of Commons resumes its session on January 9, the Opposition will mount pressure against the government's widely criticised rail privatisation policy and possibly press for a division. There are also the two by-elections in which Labour is expected to romp home in Hemsworth and the Liberal Democrats are expected to wrest the Tory marginal seat of Staffordshire South East. The elections in May for over 1,000 local council seats will be yet another challenge where the inability of the Tories to defend their few hundred seats may give propaganda victory to Labour. The only area where the government can possibly manoeuvre is the budget proposals to be presented in November.

The loss of an overall majority in the Commons, though a distinct possibility, by itself is not sufficient reason for Major to call for elections. After all, four of the six terms that Labour has had in office since World War II, have been as a minority government. But here's a government which is perceived to be steadily losing the electorate's support across the country. Minor parties like the Ulster Unionists, supporting the government and aware of its vulnerability, want to extract their price. At a time when Major is trying to set the peace process in Ireland on track, the Ulster Unionist deputy leader, John Taylor, says there should be no more talks with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Taylor warns: "We could easily find ourselves in a position where we would be supporting a vote of no-confidence." Labour leader Tony Blair says the government is "disintegrating" and "it cannot be in the interest of the country that they stagger on for another six months".

Major hopes to complete his term. But with opinion polls showing declining support, it is difficult to see how he can do the rope trick with a parliamentary majority about to vanish and the Opposition baying for blood. 

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