Major takes the fight to his Tory critics: PM attacks 'parody of debate' as right lines up behind Heseltine

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John Major last night came out fighting in a bid to restore his battered political authority with an outspoken attack on his critics over Europe for 'grotesque misrepresentation' of the compromise over majority voting.

As the odds on a leadership challenge against the Prime Minister in the autumn shortened rapidly, despite attempts by Cabinet colleagues to rally support for the Prime Minister, Mr Major said he had been listening to a 'parody of real debate' over Europe.

With the Tory party in turmoil, Mr Major redrafted his speech to Belfast businessmen to mount an emphatic defence of his conduct of the crisis over majority voting to insist that the Government had taken a 'determined, collective, and positive approach to Europe'.

Earlier, with government business managers looking to the Easter recess for a respite from the turmoil at Westminster, Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, who called for Mr Major to quit in the Commons on Tuesday, claimed '60 or 70 per cent' of the Parliamentary party 'thought the same way'. He said there were 'five or six' potential candidates for a leadership challenge - which he said he was prepared to ensure happened.

As a growing body of right-wing opinion appeared to line up behind Michael Heseltine as Mr Major's successor, there were also signs of a nascent 'stop Heseltine' campaign. Some close to Baroness Thatcher suggested she did not want to see a leadership contest.

Kenneth Clarke reaffirmed that he 'intends' to stand for the leadership - but only when Mr Major left voluntarily.

Mr Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, refused to rule himself out of any future leadership election, but said on BBC Radio: 'I will not challenge John Major. I will be with him on the ship, and there is no doubt about that . . . Mr Major knows he has got me with him. As long as he is doing that job, he knows that as a fact.' The Prime Minister's problems were compounded when the European Commission appeared to undermine the concessions won by Britain by saying that the safeguards allowing a 23-vote minority to delay Brussels decisions - seen by Britain as 'legally binding' - was a 'voluntary political declaration'.

A Times/MORI opinion poll taken before his Commons explanation of the voting deal on Tuesday showed the Tories at 28 per cent, the same level as last month, with Labour two points further ahead at 49 per cent. Mr Major's personal satisfaction rating is at 20 per cent, only just above his record low after the Maastricht Bill crisis last summer.

But in an unmistakeable reference both to the welter of disloyal pronouncements from backbenchers and the unremittingly hostile front pages in yesterday's Conservative press, Mr Major insisted that Britain had to act as one of the 12 to 'secure the changes of importance to us'. He said: 'That is what we have been doing over Europe's voting system, despite the grotesque misrepresentation of events over recent days. I learnt long ago that the world outside Westminster is very different from the rather feverish atmosphere within. Even so, you may be understandably confused to find the arcane question of qualified majority voting causing banner headlines.'

However, another Tory Maastricht rebel, John Carlisle, the MP for Luton North, joined Mr Marlow in calling for Mr Major to quit, saying: 'I think his going is now inevitable, and I think it will probably be before the summer is out.'

A question of timing, page 3

Leading article, letters, page 21

Andrew Marr, page 23

(Photograph omitted)