The Independent on Sunday/NOP poll, carried out on Friday, finds that the Prime Minister is more unpopular than Baroness Thatcher was at the height of the poll tax crisis which led to her ousting from Number 10. When asked who was the best Tory Prime Minister for the country, only 12 per cent of voters chose Mr Major. He trailed Lady Thatcher (18 per cent), the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke (13) and Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade (14). Even among those saying they would still vote Conservative, only 22 per cent think he is the best leader, against 28 per cent for Lady Thatcher.
With the Government still suffering the after-shocks of Norman Lamont's resignation speech last week, the findings will increase the crisis within the Conservative Party. Forty-three per cent of voters think Tory MPs should tell Mr Major to resign now and, even of those who supported him at the last General Election, only 42 per cent think the Prime Minister should carry on to the next.
The poll shows that most voters think that Mr Lamont was right to criticise the Prime Minister in his resignation speech.
In terms which may help to restore party unity, Mr Clarke will back Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, in making the bitterly controversial issue of invalidity benefit a symbol of the Government's determination to take unpopular decisions on public spending cuts. He and Mr Major are expected to make it clear to Cabinet colleagues this week that they are prepared to go ahead with either taxing or means-testing invalidity benefit.
Mr Clarke is expected to emphasise the importance of controlling public spending and tackling the likely pounds 50bn deficit when he delivers his Mansion House speech on Tuesday.
Mr Major says in an interview with the Mail on Sunday he is philosophically attracted to the 'lowest possible level of taxation.' He adds that he doubts whether there will be a challenge to his leadership of the Tory party this year.
At Westminster there were signs of growing discontent with the performance of some of Mr Major's closest colleagues. Mr Major is under party pressure to appoint a new, heavyweight Parliamentary Private Secretary in addition to Graham Bright.
Nicholas Soames, a junior minister at Agriculture, is one likely candidate. Another is Brian Mawhinney although, as a key minister of state, he is already in a more senior position.
The party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, who last Thursday bitterly criticised Mr Lamont's resignation speech, was under attack from leading Tories. One senior Conservative said yesterday that anyone capable of such an outburst 'can't have been giving balanced advice to the Prime Minister'. Another blamed Sir Norman for raising tensions between the Government and Tory Euro-sceptics.
The Independent on Sunday/NOP poll, which puts the Conservatives on 27 per cent, Labour on 42 and the Liberal Democrats on 26, covered 1,089 voters. The one- point gap between the Tories and Liberal Democrats is the narrowest since the heyday of the Alliance in the mid-1980s. Paddy Ashdown's party is now at its highest rating in this or the previous Parliament.
Mr Ashdown himself is given a higher personal rating than John Smith, the Labour leader, or Mr Major. Forty-five per cent think he would do very well or fairly well as Prime Minister. The equivalent ratings for Mr Smith and Mr Major are 41 and 18 per cent respectively.
In an article in today's Sunday Mirror, Mr Smith claims credit for creating the Tory leadership crisis. He says that, through 'effective opposition', he forced the Prime Minister to speak in the Commons last week.
Poll analysis, page 2; Inside Story, pages 18, 19; Leading Article, page 24; Christopher Huhne, Business Section
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