EMMA NICHOLSON, a former Tory Party vice-chairman and MP for the past eight years, is defecting to the Liberal Democrats.

Her decision cuts Mr Major's overall majority from five to three. But he could soon lose even that slim margin after two outstanding by-elections are held early in the New Year.

In a statement last night Miss Nicholson accused the Government of ``indecision and weak leadership on Europe'' and said Britain was ``neglected by a Government which does not care''.

A long-time campaigner for human rights, in particular for the disabled and the Marsh Arabs in Iraq, the 54-year-old MP said the Government had shifted too far to the right and no longer represented the One-Nation party she had joined.

She predicted that the Government was likely to call an early General Election but denied that her actions were designed to force its hand. A number of back-benchers and some Ministers shared her feelings about the shift to the right, she said.

``I can no longer say that the Tory Party is a One-Nation party,'' she said, citing apparent attempts by the Government to split the people of Britain, in particularly through policies on single parents and asylum seekers.

``I cannot go on with that,'' she said. ``I will cast my vote from the Liberal Democrat benches.''

Miss Nicholson said she would not be standing as a Liberal Democrat candidate in her constituency of Devon West and Torridge in the next General Election, but would be offering her support to the Liberal Democratic Party's candidate.

In due time, she said she hoped to stand for the Liberal Democrats for Europe.

Ironically, Mr Tony Blair, the Leader of the Opposition, in a New Year message released earlier, said it was difficult to see how a Government in such disarray could ``stumble on''.

With Labour almost certain to win the outstanding Tory seat of Staffordshire South East, whose MP died earlier this month, and equally certain to hold its own safe seat of Hemsworth in Yorkshire in February or March at the latest, the Government majority

will disappear.

The Prime Minister will be even more at the mercy of Tory rebels and even though the Conservatives are more than 30 points behind Labour in opinion polls he may decide to go to the country in the spring rather than struggle on.

Miss Nicholson - who, with a majority of 3614, looked likely to lose to her new party at the next election - is a popular figure in the Commons and comes from a long line of politically active Conservatives.

She follows Mr Alan Howarth, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who crossed the floor of the Commons to join Labour in October just before the opening of the Conservative Party conference.

Michael Heseltine last night suggested Miss Nicholson had quit the Tory Party out of frustration at not being made a junior Minister.

The Deputy Prime Minister said she had been to see him twice in the Commons in recent months expressing a desire to be promoted - but he had not been able to give her any assurances.

He said she had made ``no threat of any sort'' to him about joining the Liberal Democrats.

The defection also appeared

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to have taken Miss Nicholson's constituency by surprise.

Mrs Elizabeth Hampton, chairman of the local Conservative Association in Okehampton, Devon, said last night: ``Thank you very much for telling me. Because I did not have the news on, I did not know a thing about it.''

Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson said of the defection: ``This is a dramatic blow to the Tories and a very brave decision indeed. The Government is now on its last legs.

``She is a recognisable grande dame of the Tory Party. When somebody as central and as well known as Emma Nicholson finds she is no longer comfortable in their ranks it shows how far things have gone.''

SNP leader Alex Salmond said: ``This is devastating for the Tories. Emma Nicholson is not a figure like Alan Howarth who can be dismissed for the erratic path he has pursued through politics. She has always been a consistent left-wing Tory and it looks as

if that wing has now dropped off. Being a Tory and having a social conscience have now clearly become incompatible.''

Speaking from her Westminster home last night, Miss Nicholson spoke of her concern at the party's ``rightward shift''.

She also admitted that she was ashamed of some of the legislation she had voted for.

Smiling and looking relaxed, she said: ``It's impossible to pull apart a leader and a party - they are indivisible. I find it difficult to see a situation where a party and a leader are not one thing.''

Asked whether she was angry at being forced out by the rightward shift of the party, she replied: ``No, I'm not angry. However, I am deeply concerned that the present Conservative Party's ignorance on so many everyday things - young people's needs, teenag

ers, parents and education, the poor, the elderly, and asylum seekers.

``The Conservative Party I knew was in touch with all those people and kept their finger on the pulse of the feelings of the people and responded to them.

``It was not a party that put a wall between itself and people of different economic and ethnic backgrounds.

``The party changed in the mid-eighties when making money fast became the thing to do. It seemed to be only the quantity of money and not the ethics of the way you made it that mattered. I've allowed myself to vote for legislation which I am ashamed of.

``The Liberal Democrat philosophy seems so close to my own. It's a comfortable, sensible attitude to Britain's problems.

``My principles aren't wanted. The Conservative party deserves to lose people like me. There are lots of people in the party who feel the same way as I do.''