Damning voice from gentler age: Tories' critic cannot be ignored, says Donald Macintyre

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THE TORY party's defensiveness, its edginess, apparent in nearly every conversation with backbenchers and plenty with ministers, was not improved by yesterday's report.

It is not just the easy contrast the Government's opponents can make between 'back to basics' and the succession of abuses documented. It is not just that the governing party, which long ago derided Labour - justly - for its fondness for quangos, is now open to the same derision.

Robert Sheldon, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, may be a Labour MP but he is a man of consummate caution and probity who, has never been known to exploit his office for party political reasons.

When he speaks in the terms he did yesterday, his message seems to ring out from a gentler, more honest age. An age when ministers voluntarily and speedily resigned if their policies, not to mention private lives, were turned upside down. His words count. And Tory backbenchers know it.

Which is why it was not difficult to find those disappointed that John Major did not take a political trick by being more robust in congratulating the PAC and promising the Government would not rest until every hint of scandal had been expunged.

Mr Major believes with passion that the Civil Service is the world's best, that the Government's critics fail to understand that ministers' behaviour is closely controlled by the political neutrality of Whitehall. But yesterday's response, while literally accurate, sounded as if it had been written by the civil servants.

The PAC assault comes, too, at a bad time. Today's Times/Mori poll showing Labour at 48 per cent, the Tories at 28 and the Liberal Democrats at 20, serves only to intensify the fear about the local and European elections which, for all brave protestations to the contrary, grips the Tory high command. There is backbiting on the backbenches against the party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, against the No 10 policy unit, against the right's young pretender, Michael Portillo, for using party speeches to set out his political stall - at the prompting, it is darkly hinted, of Baroness Thatcher.

Even Kenneth Clarke, the hitherto untouchable Chancellor, is criticised for being too 'laid back' in his treatment of Labour's onslaught on tax.

There is no immediate leadership crisis. The party's ailment is chronic, not acute. The real complaint is that the Government appears to have lost its grip. Mr Major has asserted himself recently in two important ways: sanctioning the cancellation of a speech on Europe by Mr Portillo which went beyond party policy, and steadying the party in Tuesday's Question Time after it was rocked by Labour's tax attack.

Today in Leeds, Mr Major makes a key speech to establish a political and economic strategy for 1994. It could scarcely be more necessary.