Battered image gets hospital treatment

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The Independent Online
DOGGED by disloyal backbenchers, ambitious cabinet colleagues and blood-thirsty hacks, John Major tried yesterday 'to escape the wild world of Westminster' by staging a reunion with the modern Tories' staunch ally, Essex man, writes Mary Braid.

But speculation about his leadership could not be dispelled by a little baby lifting at a new maternity unit in Basildon. Had Mr Major come to the constituency which heralded his 1992 election victory to save his job, reporters shouted as he arrived. No, insisted the Prime Minister stiffly. He had come to visit a hospital.

Yet David Amess, MP for Basildon, maintained there was no crisis and Essex Tories backed the Prime Minister. Mr Amess also offered family support. Alexandra Amess, four, hugged and kissed Mr Major, while siblings Florence, two, Sarah, five, Katherine, eight, and David, nine, smiled for the cameras.

The Prime Minister wanted to meet the people but the tight schedule - an hour at the hospital followed by a dash along the M25 to Harlow to meet selected business people and party activists - shielded him from impromptu encounters and fierce criticism.

'I have high blood pressure and I have had to walk one and a half miles because they wouldn't let me park the car near the ward,' complained heavily pregnant Joanna Lilley, 26. 'I don't even want to see him. I voted Conservative last time but I won't do it again. At least Labour were

honest about taxes. The Tories have kept them hidden.' Peter Mitchell, a middle-aged builder, said: 'I recently became unemployed for the first time. I have voted Tory but I won't vote for Mr Major. He is a weak leader. I have lost everything since he came in including my house.'

Unveiling a commemorative plaque, Mr Major told hospital staff he had a 50/50 chance of pulling the right string: 'A better chance than you normally get in politics.' But outside he donned the tough guy persona, insisting he would continue to make the right judgements even when they were unpopular.

In Harlow, Ted Attewell, chairman of the Thurrock Conservative Association and a Baroness Thatcher devotee, advised backbenchers to be loyal, as they should have been to Lady Thatcher. But he also said there were too few right- wingers in the Cabinet. Stephen Andrews, deputy chairman, said: 'He's not a strong leader at the moment and if he doesn't move to the right he'll have to go.'

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