Back me or fight me, says Major: Prime Minister leaves the wild world of Westminster to win hearts and minds of Essex man

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THE PRIME MINISTER yesterday defended tax increases amounting, he said, to pounds 5.75 a week for the average household, and sought to reassert his leadership with the Tory faithful in Essex.

Challenging critics to back him or fight him, John Major said: 'I propose to carry those policies on and if they are unpopular in the short term, I will bear that unpopularity, provided I am sure they are the right policies.

'People can support me or oppose me. I will carry out the policies I believe right in this country. That is what I have been doing and will continue to do.' The Prime Minister used a tour of Basildon, the seat which proved the turning point towards his 1992 general election triumph, to stage his counter-attack. Local MPs loyally supported his visit, but the message from 'Essex Man' was that Mr Major was too weak to lead the party, and many backbenchers remained unconvinced.

He put a brave face on his difficulties by breathing defiance at critics, but the tax increases, which came into effect today, including value-added tax on electricity and gas bills, are likely to deliver a hammer blow to Tory support and ensure a wave of protest votes in the local and European elections. These may yet bring him down.

Mr Major firmly pinned his future to the prospect of economic recovery before the next general election. 'Leading this country is not about making sure that you have the right headlines tomorrow but that you have the right economic circumstances for next year, five years hence and 10 years hence.'

He put the internal criticism down to a few dissenters. 'People have a right to say what they wish. Whether it is wise for them to say it or not is a matter for them to consider, not me.

'We have a small number of people in the Conservative Party who are incorrigible if you put them in front of a microphone. That is a fact of political life.'

He assured Tory supporters that the country was coming out of recession. 'It has been long, hard and deep and it was necessary to come out of that recession in a way to ensure secure growth, lower inflation and lower interest rates. We had to have a good platform for sustained growth. I am not going to throw that away.'

Stephen Dorrell, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said the recovery would strengthen through 1994 in spite of the combined tax increases in the Budget, which came under renewed attack by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The slide in share values yesterday was 'significantly less than many commentators' had expected, Mr Dorrell said, but he refused to be drawn on whether the tax increases would lead to a cut in interest rates to boost the economy.

Sir Norman Fowler, Tory party chairman, issued a tougher warning to MPs to end their leadership criticisms and concentrate on the local and European elections.

The MPs who had called for Mr Major's resignation were mavericks. 'They don't represent the view of the Conservative Party in the country. All three would accept the title of 'maverick'. What the party wants is to get behind the Prime Minister in attacking the Labour Party and the Liberal Party.'

Gordon Brown, Labour's Shadow Chancellor, led the attack on the tax rises combined with increases in national insurance contributions, VAT on fuel, and cuts in personal allowances which Labour say will make the typical taxpayer pounds 10 a week worse off.

Most Basildon voters want Mr Major to resign, according to a poll carried out yesterday for GMTV. Of 1,000 people questioned, 54 per cent said he should go and 27 per cent that he should stay.

(Photograph omitted)

The tax debate, page 2

Leading article, page 15

Major the best manager, page 17