His warning came after the Cabinet agreed to above-inflation pay increases of about 3 per cent for 1.3 million public sector workers to try to avoid a battle over pay and to regain popularity in the run-up to the local and European elections in May.
However, both the Opposition and analysts were quick to point out that, as the Government said, there would have to be efficiency savings to fund the rises. Job losses in the public services were inevitable.
Mr Major told the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, in terms widely taken as meaning he was ready to dismiss ministers who misbehaved personally or politically: 'In future I will put my concerns for country and party before the personal feelings of others.'
The Prime Minister, having asked to address the committee's weekly meeting - a rare step - exhorted MPs to 'make the Opposition the target and not our own side'. He warned that persistent and highly publicised divisions prevented the Government from getting across the politically vital message that Britain was undergoing an economic recovery.
He received a two-minute standing ovation, having been scathing about a 'wave of criticism' in the press based on 'anonymous sources,' and saying he would rather hear critics 'face to face than behind the hand'. In a mocking reference to his widely canvassed sensitivity to newspaper attacks, he declared: 'I'll stop reading the papers if you stop talking to them.'
Mr Major also announced that he would be regularly leaving Westminster for regional tours.
His blunt remarks, in line with his dismissive approach on Tuesday to a deputation of right-wing backbenchers led by Sir George Gardiner, ended with a peroration in which he urged MPs to 'fight our opponents, support our colleagues and confound our critics'.
The Cabinet had earlier approved Pay Review Body reports for six groups, although that for the armed forces will be implemented in two stages to reduce costs. Increases range from 3 per cent for 465,000 nurses and 123,000 doctors and dentists to 2.75 per cent for top civil servants, armed forces senior officers and judges. The 475,000 teachers were awarded 2.9 per cent.
Although the increases were higher than some in the private sector, public sector unions warned they might have to be paid for by cuts in nurse and teacher staffing. Some education authorities were last night recalculating budgets because of the higher pay bills.
The Government was also facing a row over an expected 50p increase in prescription charges to pounds 4.75 an item.
Pay rises go ahead, page 4
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