Mellor quits amid Tory unrest: Backbench party chiefs tell PM he must get a grip on his government

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR was told to 'get a grip' on the Government by a delegation of senior Conservative MPs last night after accepting the resignation of David Mellor, his embattled Secretary of State for National Heritage.

The executive of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs conveyed the thinly-veiled warning of unrest on the back benches with a message of support for the Prime Minister's new economic and European strategy. Their meeting with Mr Major came as confirmation of Mr Mellor's resignation spread through the crowded Commons lobbies.

Mr Mellor, who will make a statement to the House at 11am today, resigned before being forced out by backbench opinion, leaving him with the chance of making a comeback.

Sir Norman Fowler, the chairman of the party, said last night: 'I hope it will not be long before he returns to the front bench.'

Labour claimed his resignation was timed to overshadow the Prime Minister's lacklustre Commons performance on the economic crisis. That was denied by the Prime Minister's office.

Mr Mellor's resignation letter accused the tabloid press of hounding him from office. But senior Conservative MPs made it clear throughout the day that the 'Minister of Fun' had become an embarrassment to the Government.

His resignation came 18 hours after displays of bravado on television on Wednesday night, when he vowed not to be hounded out of office by newspapers. Although he had been wounded by the disclosure of his affair with Antonia de Sancha, an actress, Tory MPs said he had been brought down by the revelations about his acceptance of free holidays and airline tickets from Mona Bauwens, the wealthy daughter of a PLO supporter, and Sheikh Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi. Ms de Sancha said she felt no guilt about his resignation but was 'very sad'. Mrs Bauwens, whose libel action proved the catalyst, said she was 'very sorry' about his resignation. Mr Mellor's wife, Judith, who stood by him throughout, said she was 'just very, very sad'.

The appointment of a successor is expected today. Names being touted include Baroness Blatch, the Education Minister in the Lords and a leading Cambridge Tory. But that would annoy Mr Mellor's critics, who believe Mr Major should rid the Cabinet of some of his 'cronies'. Others include Tristan Garel- Jones, a Minister of State at the Foreign Office, whose appointment would upset the right wing.

In spite of the bold face he presented in television interviews the night before, Mr Mellor telephoned Mr Major at 9am to say he was 'minded' to resign.

They met for about 15 minutes before a Cabinet meeting. Speculation about his departure grew as Mr Mellor stayed for an hour at Downing Street after the Cabinet broke up. He was discussing his resignation with Sir Norman.

After another telephone call to Mr Major, Mr Mellor formally handed in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister at 4pm at the Commons. Mr Mellor wrote: 'I have concluded that it is too much to expect of my colleagues in government and in Parliament to have to put up with a constant barrage of stories about me in certain tabloid newspapers.'

Mr Major's reply underlined his reluctance to accept the resignation. Mr Mellor first offered to resign in July when the People published details of his affair with Ms de Sancha. Yesterday, Mr Major decided that he had done all he could.

Why he had to go, page 2

Letters, page 22

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