The Prime Minister defended his 'back to basics' campaign and insisted that it was neither a moral crusade nor a 'witch hunt against individual transgressions'.
But Tory MPs returning to Westminster in a downcast mood warned that Mr Major's leadership was on probation. Thatcherite MPs said they were ready to back Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, to replace Mr Major, if the Prime Minister failed to restore his credibility by the autumn.
There was further embarrassment in Tory circles over the resignation of Lord Caithness, whose wife died last Saturday, apparently committing suicide. The former transport minister was fiercely criticised by her parents yesterday over his relationship with a former secretary to members of the Royal Family. They said Lord Caithness's association with Jan Fitzalan Howard, who once worked for the Princess Royal and Princess Michael
of Kent, had destroyed his marriage.
Major Richard Coke, 75, who lives near King's Lynn, Norfolk, said that his son-in- law, who resigned as Minister for Aviation and Shipping, had 'behaved extremely badly'. He and his wife Molly, 69, said that claims by friends of Lord Caithness that the family had a happy Christmas were untrue.
Major Coke said: 'We have to say in fact that my daughter and her two children spent Christmas here but not Lord Caithness. He was invited but he declined to come.' Mrs Coke added: 'It was a miserable Christmas. Diana, my daughter, was very upset and naturally worried and talked to us about it.
'Her husband was thinking of leaving her. She would do anything to save her marriage. She was very loyal. I think she was the ideal wife that the Conservative Party believes in. She only cared for a true family life.'
Asked if they blamed the Earl for her suicide, Mrs Coke said: 'I hesitate to blame anybody when there is a death. There is no doubt the cause of the breakdown in the marriage was because of this other woman.'
Mr Major, speaking in Brussels, insisted his 'back to basics' campaign applied to the broad range of Government policies, including law and order, and economics. He added: 'Of course we want good standards and good values right across, not just the public sector but elsewhere. But it is not our job as politicians to preach about that.'
Irritated by questioning about his refusal to sack Tim Yeo, the Minister of State for the Environment whose extramarital affair precipitated the current government crisis of confidence, he said: 'I suppose it was a great mistake that I didn't know that one of my ministers fathered a child
22 years ago. But it was not a mistake I could do a great deal about.'
Government whips briefed the Prime Minister that the mood among MPs returning to Westminster was 'better than we could have hoped'. They admitted the party was dispirited, but said Mr Major could weather the storm. In the Commons, John Smith, Labour's leader, exploited Tory discomfort about morality by attacking ministers' 'hypocrisy' and 'double standards'.
Tory MPs were giving Mr Major until November to recover his lost credibility or face demands to go. The past week of disasters for the Government, in which two ministers and a ministerial aide have been forced to resign, led some Thatcherites to say they would support Mr Clarke as Mr Major's replacement, in spite of his pro-European views.
Mr Major's urgent need to restore his authority was reinforced from the other end of the party spectrum by Sir Edward Heath. Casting himself in the role of the Prime Minister's candid friend, he called on Mr Major to end the 'immense confusion' surrounding the 'back to basics' campaign by abandoning the slogan, and by sacking some Cabinet ministers who had used it to preach morality to the public.
He told Channel Four News: 'The essential thing is for him to sort it out, and I think the best way he can do that is
to abandon any idea of talking back all the time and look
The extent of the Tory troubles was underlined by a Guardian/ICM opinion poll, taken two days after Mr Yeo resigned, putting Labour on
50 per cent (compared to 47 in December), the Conservatives on 26 (26) and the Liberal Democrats on 20 (23).
Mr Major's backbenchers have shown none of the hysteria which they displayed at the height of the splits over Maastricht, but they returned grimly from the new year break, facing another uphill struggle, when they had been hoping to reap the rewards of economic recovery. The suicide of Lady Caithness emphasised the sombre mood.
'We're under siege,' said one senior backbencher. Some said they sensed an unhealthy whiff of 'McCarthyism' about the search for more sex scandals by the press and their own constituents, and some Tory MPs said they were worried they would be next.
The whips believe the Tory skeletons, known to them, are now out of the cupboard. But they are braced for more