and PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES
John Major yesterday opened six days of intensive face to face campaigning with MPs to retain the Tory leadership by delivering a clear signal that he will step down as Prime Minister rather than compromise further with his Euro-sceptic tormentors.
Despite the hardening threat of second ballot leadership bids by Michael Portillo and Michael Heseltine, Mr Major gave his most unequivocal message yet that he will not bow to the demands of the right and rule out a single currency.
The main consolation for an embattled Prime Minister last night, as he returned from his weekly audience with the Queen to dine with MPs in the Commons, was a MORI poll in today's Times showing that his rating has risen from 21 to 28 per cent since his dramatic decision to resign as party leader.
Mr Major used a determined but low key statement to a subdued Commons yesterday to tell MPs that he was not prepared to destroy "our ability to influence the debate on a single currency" by using Britain's right to opt out of it now.
He reinforced his uncompromising stance by rounding on William Cash, a leading Euro-sceptic supporter of his challenger, John Redwood, by saying that he was "talking out of the back of his head". Mr Cash's suggestion that he ignored the warning signs of the Danish no vote on the Maastrict treaty was "claptrap".
There were mounting hopes last night in the Major camp that the Prime Minister's tough stance - which confirms that his resignation decision on Thursday marked a decisive end to attempts to appease the Europhobes in the party - will appeal to the Tory left. He is likely to secure the support of the Positive European Group when he meets them tonight.
But with relatively neutral senior figures in the Tory party still still predicting a dangerously high level of abstentions in next Tuesday's vote, Cabinet loyalists went into high gear in an effort to persuade Mr Portillo to wind down his supporters' preparations for a second ballot campaign.
The Major camp were warning that any threat by Mr Portillo to resign from the Cabinet if Mr Major beat Mr Redwood by a relatively narrow margin could blow Mr Portillo's chances of succeeding Mr Major in the next Parliament - and possibly usher in a Michael Heseltine premiership.
Some were even suggesting that Mr Major would step down before the end of the Parliament even if the Tories won the next general election - making Mr Portillo his natural successor provided he remained loyal.
Tremors went through Westminster after the discovery that 20 telephone lines had been installed in a house in Lord North Street owned by Enoch Powell's former private secretary, Greville Howard. Embarrassed Portillo supporters insisted that the "over-enthusiastic" move had not been authorised by the Secretary of State for Employment, who continued to predict victory for Mr Major on Tuesday - with his own support.
By contrast, Mr Heseltine managed to remain elegantly above the fray by restating his loyalty to Mr Major - predicting a "convincing" victory for the Prime Minister - while keeping alive the prospect of his own second ballot "unity" candidacy by saying that "all sides" would have to accept "the inevitable compromises" on Europe.
As the Tories' continued tailspin was shown to have wiped pounds 20bn off share values since last Thursday, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, led a ministerial drive to ridicule Mr Redwood's promise yesterday of pounds 5bn in tax cuts through savings in Whitehall administrative costs. He said: "It's no good just asserting there is the odd few billion pounds you can take out of the civil service.'' He called Mr Redwood's plans to attack bureaucratic waste a vague wish list, saying controls over Whitehall running costs were already the strictest they had ever been.
Mr Redwood stepped up his attack on the Prime Minister by declaring that: "If the team is doing badly the captain has to do something about it ... the Tory team has been losing too many elections. We must change before it is too late." A loyalist Cabinet minister confronted the veiled threats of further ministerial resignations next week by repeating that a one vote victory would be enough to allow Mr Major to stay on. He said: "If Michael Portillo encourages his supporters to abstain that would be his second big mistake after allowing John Redwood to steal a march on him."
Major supporters were treating with scepticism claims from Heseltine allies that the likelihood of a leadership bid by the President of the Board of Trade was exaggerated. Amid claims that support for the Prime Minister was hardening, one senior minister exhorted potential Heseltine supporters not to ignore the parallel with the 1975 leadership election when supporters of Lord Whitelaw failed to recognise the threat of a clear victory from the right by Baroness Thatcher. The same, he argued, could happen again.Reuse content