A week when even the faithful press has had its doubts

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If the Tory newspapers are to be believed, things are looking better for Mr Major today than they did at the start of the week. They could hardly have been worse with Alan Howarth's defection to Labour on every front page.

The Mail, Telegraph, Times and Sun, newspapers traditionally most supportive of the Conservatives, carried dire warnings of deep unrest on the left of the party and suggestions that others might jump ship.

Indeed, all week, the editors of these papers seemed determined to make the Tories work hard for their headlines. Things improved as the week went on. Mr Major's promises to slash spending on welfare gathered approving words: "Steady nerves and a sharp axe" were needed, according to the Daily Mail. Michael Heseltine "rallied the troops" with an Alamein battle cry, said the Telegraph.

The wildly Euro-sceptic speech from Michael Portillo garnered headlines trumpeting the Tories' intention to make "Europe their battleground" from the Times. "Tory cheers as Portillo flies the flag", splashed the Telegraph.

But for each positive headline, there seemed to be a reverse. The Daily Mail's front page splash of the Tory revolt over rate-capping on Thursday did little to help things. Then it poured salt in the wound by describing Mr Portillo's speech as "shamelessly jingoistic" and "silly". The Sun was particularly robust. Quoted at the conference for a favourable editorial earlier this week, yesterday it reminded readers that three months ago it branded John Major a loser and demanded to know "what's the big idea Prime Minister?" If he could not "set Tory souls ablaze with hope" in his final address to the conference "his party must resign itself to defeat".

In its leading article today, the Sun thinks he has done the trick. "It wasn't so much the Big Idea as the Right Idea," it says. "He is not an idealist, like Blair. He is a realist ... The message was clear: There is a real choice between the Tories and Labour. Between us and Them ... Now they have the greatest choice of all: New Labour or True Conservative. And in the budget next month, Major can show us which one delivers the goods."

Other normally pro-Tory leader writers were unimpressed by his thunderous Blackpool ovation and awarded him no more than lukewarm clapping from a crouching position.

Today's Daily Telegraph leading article says much depends on the next six weeks and any tax cuts the Chancellor can come up with. "Comparatively small adverse shifts, either in the economy or Europe could yet torpedo the Conservatives' hopes. After yesterday's speech, however, Mr Blair would unwise to count on it ... Labour must still be considered favourites to win the next election. But ... Mr Major's powers of recovery should never be underestimated."

The Times is less generous. The Tories are the old party and Labour the young. Tony Blair, it says, is the leader of a youthful party which promises a new young Britain. Mr Major, by contrast, offers us a "wise and kindly" way of life. "Promising more of the same in reassuring voices might be appropriate for a party supreme in the polls. But the Conservatives, well behind in the race, cannot afford the luxury of coasting."