Tory wrangle over leadership rules: Cabinet backing and backbench doubts greet Thatcher call for ban on challenges to PM

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SENIOR Conservative MPs were last night resisting pressure for a change in the rules for a leadership contest, in spite of a united effort by Baroness Thatcher and Cabinet ministers to kill speculation about a challenge to John Major this autumn.

Two Cabinet ministers - Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and John Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, and Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative Party chairman, gave their backing to a call by Lady Thatcher for the rules to be changed to prevent a challenge being mounted to a Prime Minister while in office.

Tory leaders fear the threat of a challenge may undermine the fight-back Mr Major will launch this week at the Tory party conference. The rules were changed after Lady Thatcher's downfall to require the support of 10 per cent of the Conservative Party in the Commons - 34 named MPs - to force a challenge.

But Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, said in an interview with the Independent that he was against any attempt to change the rules further, while emphasising that the issue was 'academic': there would be no leadership contest and he expected Mr Major to lead the party into the next election.

Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, which drafted the rules, also urged caution. 'I don't think it is something which should be high in our priorities,' he said.

Senior backbench colleagues believe a move to tamper with the rules agreed unanimously last year would be counter-productive. There was a united effort in advance of this week's party conference to damp down the threat of a challenge to Mr Major this year. Mr Hurd said: 'The crisis is over.'

Lady Thatcher, who will be at the centre of a stage-managed rapprochement with the Tory leadership this week, said in the Sunday Times: 'I do not think the Prime Ministership of a nation should be determined by some leadership rules that were fashioned for being in opposition. She added: 'The party really must think again.'

Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, made it clear that the Thatcherites - fearing Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, would replace Mr Major - do not want a challenge this year. 'There is not going to be a leadership contest this year. It would be absolutely daft and I don't believe it is going to happen. He should be relaxed and get stuck in. . .'

Mr Lamont revealed that he had himself vainly urged Lady Thatcher to change the rules to the present system before she lost office.

Mr Lamont emphatically rejected speculation that he might mount a challenge to the Prime Minister next year, and added: 'There is no vacancy and I don't expect there to be one.'

But the former Chancellor repeated his call for further cuts in spending in preference to any tax rises, citing the specific example of invalidity benefit.

However, Mr Clarke confirmed yesterday that he was looking at options for widening the scope of value-added tax to zero-rated items. The two VAT increases on domestic fuel would go ahead as planned.

The Chancellor, on the ITV Walden programme, warned backbenchers calling for more spending cuts instead of tax increases that it would be the toughest spending review in a decade. There was 'blood all over the floor' of Cabinet committee rooms.

Lamont interview, page 4

Leading article, page 17

Vernon Boganor, page 19