Fighting talk from embattled Major: Prime Minister seeks to counter poor poll ratings but his unpopularity is shared by today's world leaders

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The Independent Online
A beleaguered John Major may have secured a temporary respite from a relentless wave of criticism yesterday after a speech pledging tough policies on public spending, education, law and order and Europe.

His rallying call to the Conservative Women's Conference in London, which included a vow not to forget manifesto promises, was seen by conference representatives as a warning of impending public spending cuts.

But he also failed to rule out increases in direct or indirect taxation to stem the pounds 50bn public spending deficit, an aspect that appeared to go largely unnoticed.

The most unpopular prime minister since opinion polls began, according to yesterday's Gallup/Daily Telegraph survey, also lived up to his reputation for taking criticisms personally by departing from his prepared text to attack critics who had branded him 'tired, weary and depressed'.

He insisted: 'I am fit. I am well. I am here and I am staying. What I am tired and weary of is gossip dressed up as news, malice dressed up as comment and fiction reported as fact.'

The carefully crafted fightback highlighted what some representatives called fundamental issues as Mr Major defended plans for schools- based teacher training - which will be included in this autumn's Queen's Speech - and his 'understand a little less, condemn a little more' dictum on crime of a few months ago.

In an evident move to silence his anti-European critics, he upped the ante in relations with the rest of the European Community. The working time directive on the maximum 48- hour week and other hours guarantees, passed by a majority vote this week, would be fought politically, he pledged, as well as in the European Court of Justice. He announced that the Government would veto plans, supported by other EC countries, for legislation on works' councils.

Representatives applauded as he insisted it was time to stop knocking Britain - which was forecast to grow faster than any other leading EC country. He said that working practices were a matter for Britain and he highlighted government plans to allow courts to consider previous convictions when sentencing, and to crack down on new age travellers and social security fraudsters.

There was applause too as the Prime Minister said he hoped and prayed that Britain would always remain a constitutional monarchy. He said that parents and the public backed the publication of league tables of exam and test results and truancy rates, and the teaching of 'good manners' alongside knowledge, discipline, sums, dates, Shakespeare, British history, standard English, grammar and spelling.

John Smith, the Labour leader, called the speech 'the same tired old dirge'. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said policies, not personalities needed changing.

The signs from the conference floor were that Mr Major might have succeeded in temporarily damping down some predictions of his imminent demise, though a number of representatives had reservations. The standing ovation was polite.

Anne Hunter, from Streatham, south London, said: 'He is not weak. As a little man from the people, some people can't stand it. I got the feeling today that he is really quite forceful.'

Not all those from the right of the party were prepared to write him off. Steel was grey too, as one put it. But some critics were unrepentant. Frankie Clywd-Jones, chair of the Clywd South West Women's Committee, said: 'We've heard all he said before. It had no impact. I do feel a certain amount of disloyalty by saying he's running out of steam. I just can't wait for the non-Europeans to shout a little louder. He (Mr Major) is boring, very boring. We really do need a strong personality.'

Smith's options open, page 2

(Photograph omitted)