Major foresees quitting when least expected

JOHN MAJOR will step down when least expected but his departure is still a long way off, he has emphasised in an interview with a German magazine.

The Prime Minister's determination not to be prematurely ousted came amid a fresh and pointed wave of Tory back-bench criticism, but he insisted: 'I would draw your mind back prior to the last election when the opinion polls said I wouldn't win. Well I have been here now for three-and-a-half years and I expect to be answering your questions for some time to come.'

The Der Spiegel interview also sees him mounting a strong defence of his policies on Europe, claiming British ideas were the driving force in the European Union.

The interview comes in the run-up to Wednesday's Anglo- German summit, when Mr Major holds talks with Chancellor Helmut Kohl in London and at Chequers - but it co- incides with growing signs that friends of Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, are cranking up support for him as a future leader.

The prospect of a leadership challenge was dismissed by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary. He told BBC's Radio 5 Live that Mr Major was a 'man of steel. This chat about leadership is unreal. Serious politicians are not talking about it inside the Government or inside the party.'

But Mr Portillo, seen as a standard-bearer by the right, revealed in a weekend BBC radio interview that he has long-term ambitions as a leadership candidate. That followed his 'quiet majority' speech last Friday, aimed at redressing the damage caused by earlier controversial remarks about foreign corruption, and to raising his profile more widely across the Tory party.

His supporters are agitating for him to be given a senior job in a high-spending department, such as health or education, in this summer's reshuffle to broaden his experience and voter awareness.

Pressed over whether he had achieved his objective of being at the 'centre' of Europe, Mr Major told Der Spiegel that Britain had 'set some of the pace' and produced some of the innovations with its policies over enlargement, social provision and subsidiarity.

As to his personal future, he said: 'I will go when people least expect it. But I have got a lot to do yet.'

Yesterday, John Carlisle, the right-wing Tory MP for Luton North and one of the Prime Minister's fiercest critics, told BBC 1's On The Record that there was almost a 'death wish' among some colleagues for the party to do badly in the European elections 'so that they have the excuse to have another go at the leadership'.

There were signs of concern over the effect of poor results among Major loyalists as well. David Wilshire, MP for Spelthorne, told the programme: 'There's a limit to what any person can take . . . I don't really see there's much to be gained by pretending and giving the impression of being utterly out of touch . . . I just suggest that we need to realise that some people are getting quite close to breaking point.'

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