Tory unease grows over Major

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CONSERVATIVE backbenchers indicated yesterday that their patience is running out with John Major's leadership as devastating criticism attributed to the former Chancellor Norman Lamont threatened a new crisis.

As Downing Street tried to cool the controversy over reports that Mr Lamont had described the Prime Minister as 'weak and hopeless', John Carlisle, MP for Luton North and a Maastricht rebel, said: 'There is unease and there is disquiet in the party about the present leadership.

'But most of us are trying to give Mr Major a second chance. That is why I regret Mr Lamont's comments at this stage. I do think it is up to the Prime Minister to reassert his authority, and if he doesn't, or can't, then obviously there will be further problems and doubts about his continued leadership.'

A former minister, George Walden, predicted on Channel 4's A Week in Politics that the Conservatives would 'lose the election' unless drastic action was taken. He added that the party must 'get away from moronic sloganising and talk to people like grown-ups'.

Mr Lamont disassociated himself from the article in yesterday's Times, which he described as 'a mixture of invented quotations and muddled misrepresentation of things said off the record'. But he declined to disown specific phrases. The Times is standing by its article.

The Lamont revelations, which overshadowed a much- trailed speech by Mr Major on Friday night, have added to rumours of a possible leadership coup after the local and European elections in May and June. Senior Conservative sources are warning of a 'Canada factor' which would take hold if the election results are 'not just bad - but wipe-out'. (Canada's Conservatives lost power in a crushing defeat in the recent general election.)

A Conservative backbencher added: 'The party is still not 100 per cent sure that they want this man to lead them into the general election. Norman Lamont said it in stronger terms than he should have done, but he made public that disquiet.'

David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, called for greater concentration on the positive aspects of the Major administration. Other senior MPs rounded on Mr Lamont whose search for a new seat, because of boundary changes, looks increasingly difficult. David Evans, a vice- chairman of the executive of the 1922 Committee, said: 'He's useless.'

Further reports, page 2