John Major yesterday came under pressure to move to the right to meet the challenge of Tony Blair's march on to the centre ground of British politics.
In the wake of Labour's crushing victory in Thursday's Staffordshire South East by-election, John Redwood, who challenged the Prime Minister for the Tory leadership last year, led Tory claims that the defeat required a change of direction, marked by big tax cuts.
But Mr Major insisted he would hold to a steady course: "I have been in politics long enough not to over-react to any by-election result. I am disappointed by last night's result but politics is not an easy ride. I am here to do what is right and stick with it."
Labour's Brian Jenkins took the seat with a near-record 22 per cent swing, reducing Mr Major's Commons majority to one. Speaking from the United States before a meeting with President Clinton, Mr Blair put the Conservatives on notice: "If an opportunity presents itself to remove this Government then it's not merely an opportunity, it is our duty as the Opposition to try and remove them," he said.
The Labour leader welcomed the result as a "stunning" vindication of his eve-of-poll declaration that Labour was now the party of the centre, as well as the left of centre. He said: "I think one of the things that last night's result shows is that New Labour is a new party of the centre ground, is a party that can appeal across the classes and is a party that is capable therefore of uniting the country."
And the success of Labour's middle-class message in a classically Middle England seat re-ignited the Tory party's divisions over how to fight back against Mr Blair's appeal to their former supporters.
As Tory MPs privately expressed alarm that the Government might be running out of time to stage a recovery, several urged the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, to adopt a bold tax-cutting strategy.
Mr Redwood said: "I think voters in the by-election were saying the economic recovery is not enough, they want to see more action on tax . . . they want reassurance about the future direction of the country."
But the "One Nation" Tory Tim Devlin, MP for Stockton South, insisted the party had to fight for the centre ground. "Anyone who's ever fought a marginal seat knows that you win in the centre ground and that it is the attractiveness of your policies to the broad mass of the public, not just to your own traditional supporters, which is what counts," he said.
The deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine insisted that the Tories' second-worst by-election defeat by Labour did not mean a change to the strategy of waiting for "real personal disposable income" to rise. "The longer we have, the more the benefits of the sacrifices that we've made turn out into economic prosperity for the widest possible range of people," he said.
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