Today's MacGregor ruffles `unprofessional' Mawhinney

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Brian Mawhinney, the Tory chairman, was under fire from within his own ranks yesterday after an outburst in which he claimed that a BBC interviewer was urging the Tory party to "dump the Prime Minister"

The row exposed tensions within the Tory high command in the wake of last Thursday's crushing defeat in the Staffordshire South East by-election as it emerged that John Major is ruling out both an early Cabinet reshuffle and a lurch to the tax-cutting agenda of the right.

While Mr Mawhinney later mounted a robust defence of his attack on the Today programme interviewer Sue MacGregor some senior Tory backbenchers privately accused him of a serious misjudgement. One prominent right- winger said his outburst was "crass" and "unprofessional" -not least because he, rather than Ms MacGregor, had explicitly raised the issue of "dumping the Prime Minister."

The clash with Ms MacGregor, which overshadowed the launch of the Tories' local election campaign, arose in a discussion on the popularity gap the Tories need to close between now and the general election. The BBC interviewer said: "Nowin 1990 you did something dramatic. You got rid of the poll tax you also got rid if Mrs Thatcher. Aren't you going to have to do something as dramatic as that not to lose so many seats?

Mr Mawhinney replied: "Oh come on, Sue, let's stay in the real world, can we? What you have just suggested to me in front of the nation is that we should dump the Prime Minister . . . that is a ludicrous and indefensible question and if you think I'm annoyed with you it is because it is that kind of smeary question by Today programme presenters which so annoys people . . . "

The exchange follows friction between Conservative Central Office between Downing Street over who is to blame for the by-election defeat. Criticisms have been made of the campaign, and there have been counter-suggestions that John Major overruled a proposal to postpone the by-election until the day of local elections on 2 May. There are also thought to be sharp differences over the desirability of a Cabinet reshuffle, as the party chairman is said to want. Mr Major, it has emerged, does not want any "ritual bloodletting".

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said: "Now Brian Mawhinney has given a new phrase - `dump the Prime Minister'. It is not our phrase. It is what Tory MPs and Tory activists are muttering which is why it was on his mind."