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Government in Crisis: Major faces leadership test

THE APPARENT retreat over the pit closures may have eased the atmosphere when John Major sat down to lunch with the leaders of the Tory back bench at the Carlton Club, but his authority as Prime Minister has been weakened in the eyes of those around him.

It turned what promised to be a Black Monday for Mr Major into a shade of depressing grey.

His critics said he had backed too many losers: his determination to keep sterling in the exchange rate mechanism, his support for David Mellor to remain in the Cabinet, and the pit closures which he personally endorsed.

'It's one U-turn too many,' said one senior Tory who was at the lunch. 'He's got to be more ruthless. He has got to forget all this stuff about the first among equals. He's not running a cricket club.'

Mr Major's friends will argue he cannot win: that he was under attack for being too ruthless, and is criticised for being caring. The Prime Minister's office said it was unfair to attack Mr Major for listening to criticism and making a U-turn. But his own backbenchers said one of the reasons behind the rebellion was his failure to act tough when it mattered most.

Mr Major will be expected to demonstrate his leadership qualities when he faces John Smith across the despatch box at Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons for the first time today.

'We were very polite, but we told him we expected better information for the back bench, better presentation of policies by ministers and, above all, for him to get a grip,' one of the 1922 Committee officers said.

Many Tory MPs believe the vacuum of leadership identified by Sir Edward Heath over Maastricht has not been filled, raising the threat of more rebellions on Maastricht when the Bill is returned for ratification.

One of Mr Major's supporters said: 'John's position is safe because there is no alternative. Heseltine is now out of the running to replace him. We don't want Kenneth Clarke. And Michael Portillo, at 40, is too young.' One of Mr Major's main problems is that Tory supporters in the country compare him unfavourably with Baroness Thatcher.

However, underlying the unrest about the miners remains widespread Tory anxiety about the recession. Tory MPs, although welcoming the cuts in interest rates, are confused about the Government's economic policy.

A straw poll of 147 Tory constituency chairmen for the ITN Parliament programme showed that 58 per cent were dissatisfied with the Government's handling of the economy and 31 per cent thought Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, should go. The Chancellor has lost the confidence of many backbenchers. The 1922 Committee leaders told Mr Major that they are now looking to him to set out a clear strategy. They will follow, if only he will make it clear where he is leading them.