JOHN MAJOR yesterday confronted the critics of his leadership in the wake of the worst Tory election results in living memory with a bold warning that any challenger 'would find me standing there waiting for him'.
As Mr Major's shell-shocked ministerial colleagues fought to regroup and focus Tory minds on what promises to be the even more daunting battle for European Parliament seats, the Prime Minister demanded that the party refrain from 'whingeing' and recover its self-discipline.
While party officials contemplated the scale of an electoral meltdown which left the Tories with 28 per cent of the vote - the same as the jubilant Liberal Democrats - Mr Major declared: 'I do not believe in present circumstances that the party will forgive anyone who stands on the sidelines or utters a discordant note.'
Mr Major's warning was meant to pre-empt internal debate on the leadership after the loss of more than 400 council seats, with the Tory vote collapsing in once impregnable citadels such as Tunbridge Wells, Worthing, Croydon and Kingston. One middle-of-the- road MP yesterday described it as 'less a disaster, more a catastrophe'. In Scotland, the party was pushed into fourth place, well behind the Scottish nationalists.
But speaking outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister declared: 'The Conservative Party that I care about is a good deal bigger than any election setback. We must now pick ourselves up and fight back and that is precisely what I intend to do, and I invite every Conservative to join me in that fight.'
Claiming his 1992 election victory as his mandate, Mr Major declared: 'I regard public office not as a matter of personal pride or personal ambition. I regard public office as a responsibility and a duty.'
His remarks expressed his determination to soldier on as Prime Minister even if, after the European elections on 9 June, an attempt is mounted to secure the names of the 34 MPs required to serve notice on the 1922 Committee that there should be a leadership contest in November. While some dissidents said there was enough support for such a move - possibly even forcing a midsummer contest - others were much more doubtful.
As George Gardiner, MP for Reigate, urged an immediate reshuffle to correct the 'imbalance between the left-of-centre Cabinet and the party as a whole', a fellow right- wing MP, John Carlisle, provoked unrest in his Luton North constituency association by declaring he would 'reluctantly' stand against Mr Major if no one else did. Mr Carlisle - branded a fool by his constituency chairman - said the common theme in the Tory party was that 'the Prime Minister's position is almost untenable'.
Some senior figures in the Tory high command lost little time in laying part of the blame for the losses on Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and David Evans, MP for Welwyn and Hatfield. Last weekend, Mr Portillo voiced his deep hostility to a single European currency, then Mr Evans offered Mr Major some unsolicited advice on whom to sack from the Cabinet. 'It didn't help,' said one Tory. 'The public has a sixth sense. They know when we are divided.'
But, amid admissions from even the most dissident Tories that there would be no leadership crisis at least until after 9 June, Mr Portillo, rapidly emerging as the leading right-wing candidate in any contest, led the chorus of support for Mr Major, declaring that Mr Carlisle's comments would 'be discounted because the mood of the party this morning is that it wants to unite around the leader'.
Michael Heseltine, the current favourite as a potential successor, repeated his prediction that Mr Major would 'lead the Conservative Party into the next election and win with an increased majority.'
While some Tories claimed to take comfort from Labour's share of the vote being only 40 per cent, John Smith, the party's leader, said Labour had won 750 more seats than either of the other two main parties. 'Labour is now a party appealing to every part of Britain and every section of society,' he said.
Ministers and Tory party managers are expected to meet at Downing Street on Monday to plan for the European elections. Conservative MPs saw the low turnout of Tory voters in the council elections as a bad omen for the European poll. The MPs argued that many Tories did turn out on Thursday to protect well-regarded local councillors; they would not do that for MEPs.
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