Insults fly on a black day for Major: Crisis over Europe: Tory MPs predict autumn leadership challenge as harsh words follow climbdown

QUITE APART from the harsh words and the hurled insults, the grim expressions and the body language on the Tory backbenches showed that John Major's 51st birthday was not going to be his happiest, despite the routine cheers as he entered the chamber. It could even be his last as Prime Minister, MPs said last night.

If discomfort and embarrassment, hostility too, can be judged by the numbers of folded arms and studied feet and 'let's get it over with' expressions, those emotions ran deep yesterday. Labour lapped them up.

Tony Marlow, the Tory maverick who shocked Mr Major during the Commons exchanges with his challenge that he should resign, claimed afterwards that the Prime Minister was 'politically . . . terminally dead. He has no credibility at all'.

The Euro-sceptical Bill Walker, Tory MP for Tayside, said: 'I think the situation today sadly now looks as if there will be a challenge to the leadership in the autumn.'

Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, last night strongly dismissed claims that Mr Marlow and fellow anti-Europeans spoke for anyone other than habitual rebels, rejecting talk of a challenge as having 'no substance whatsoever. I consider the whole issue orchestrated by people totally opposed to our entry into Europe'. For once, however, the Euro-sceptics - who predicted yesterday's climbdown from the outset - are not in the vanguard. One said: 'It's too early to say whether there will be a challenge.'

One MP, only mildly Euro-sceptical, declared by contrast: 'Major is finished.' One minister insisted that Mr Major's overtly Euro-sceptical stance last week was a legitimate negotiating tactic, but admitted that such subtleties were lost on the average backbencher: 'I have been round the tea- room,' he said. 'They feel deflated.'

The cumulative effect of the voting climbdown, vacillation over inviting Germans to march in Whitehall, plus rotten local and Euro-election results to come could well make a leadership challenge inevitable, one MP warned: 'It all confirms the public perception that he is weak.' The most likely contender, Michael Heseltine, adopted an expression of impassive neutrality during yesterday's statement.

Labour MPs sought to compound the misery with a tactical decision to mention the figure 27 as many times as possible. Mr Major had been guilty of 'vainglorious assertions of no surrender' last week, followed by a 'humiliating climbdown' yesterday, said John Smith, the party leader. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal leader, told the Prime Minister: 'You have made a fool of yourself.'

There was little humour, except when Andrew Faulds, Labour MP for Warley East, declared: 'Leadership in the context of your enfeebled Government requires you to be brutal with the eccentric excrescences to your right.' Douglas Hurd pointed smilingly to Kenneth Clarke, sitting on the Prime Minister's right, who until Monday was one of the most militant critics of the concessions that were eventually wrought.