With some of his Cabinet colleagues wincing at Kenneth Clarke's frank admission that the "feel-good" factor might not be fully rekindled until after the general election, the Chancellor took on his critics by repeating that it would take a "long time" for economic recovery to make a full impact on the public.
He insisted yesterday: "By the next election people will see that we've got out of a recession and delivered a better, healthier, faster recovery than anywhere else in Western Europe."
But Mr Clarke's robust damage limitation exercise was undermined when he compounded a gaffe two weeks ago about the defunct steelworks at Consett by praising a nappy factory in the same town. That factory has also shut.
The developments came as Mr Major was threatened with fresh trouble over Europe on Tuesday when Labour puts down an amendment to a motion on the common agricultural policy. Tory business managers lost no time in warning that the "whipless" rebels would forfeit an early chance of a return to the fold if they chose to vote against the Government.
Amid a fresh outbreak of Tory jitters over the forthcoming local elections - compounded by a Glasgow Herald poll showing the Tories likely to slump to third place in the Perth and Kinross by-election - the Prime Minister was invited to comment on a report in the Sun that "senior Tories" were plotting against him if the results fulfilled their worst fears. Mr Major replied: "Your question might well have been asked of me last year, the year before last, and the year before that, and almost certainly was - and very probably it will be asked of me next year, the year after that, and the year after that."
And as Lord McAlpine appeared to revel in the shockwaves caused by his suggestion the party would benefit from a spell in opposition, the president of the National Housebuilders' Federation, Charles Gallagher, complained that ministers had reneged on promises he described as "big vote-winners". He said: "It is ironic to find the Labour Party . . . championing the plight of the hard-pressed homeowner while the Government now refuses to do so."
In the Commons, Tony Blair, the Labour leader, declared: "All the Chancellor has done is confirm what the vast majority of British people already knew, that unless you are one of the favoured few at the top, you are worse off under the Tories."
Mr Major responded: "When are you going to understand the most basic economic fact that you cannot promote expenditure and call for tax reductions and expect to be taken seriously."
Clarke on Consett, page 2
The wit, wisdom and howlers
of Kenneth Clarke
On teachers: `I do not expect to persuade our teachers to return to rows of desks... but geography lessons should not all be conducted in sandpits'
On his appointment as health secretary: `I don't take exercise of any kind myself'
On opposition by GPs to health changes: They `should stop fumbling nervously for their wallets'
On ambulance staff: `The vast majority... are professional drivers'
To a Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman: `Why don't you go away, lie down in a dark room and keep taking the tablets'
On the Maastricht treaty: `I have never read it. You should not waste your time'
On Consett's closed steelworks: It is `one of the best in Europe'