Major puts faith in Essex appeal as sniping continues: Another Tory MP called on the Prime Minister to resign yesterday. Colin Brown reports

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JOHN MAJOR will today seek to reassert his authority by appealing over the heads of his critics for 'Essex Man' to support his leadership.

The Prime Minister's visit to the Tory heartlands in Essex will attempt to remind Conservative MPs calling for him to resign that he overcame the odds at the last election and won.

The decisive moment of election night in 1992 came after midnight when it was announced that the Conservatives had held Basildon. Mr Major will be underlining the message that under his leadership, the Tories can do it again.

But as he was preparing for today's visit, the fourth call in a week for him to resign was made by one of his own MPs.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, the former Solicitor General for Scotland, described the Prime Minister as a 'ventrioloquist's dummy' and a 'softie' who should resign after the European elections.

Sir Nicholas, speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, said he favoured Michael Portillo to succeed Mr Major because 'I don't like Clarke and I don't trust Heseltine - I think he's a spiv and Clarke's a bounder'.

Among Mr Major's shortcomings was a lack of stature, Sir Nicholas said. 'He is vin ordinaire, and he should be chateau-bottled.'

Lord Archer, a close confidant of the Prime Minister and his predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, said yesterday on BBC that Mr Major would be touring the constituencies where he was at his best, talking directly to people.

He said the constituencies would be 'livid' with the speculation among Conservative MPs and ministers about leadership challenges by Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine.

'Going round the constituencies, they are saying, 'Let's get behind John Major. He was the man who won the election . . .' I think an (leadership) election at the moment could only harm the party and would tear us apart. We should spend that energy in getting behind the Prime Minister.'

Mr Major was likely to be 'distressed by the continual attacks on him which are unfair - but that is part of politics', Lord Archer added.

Lord Wyatt, the Tory peer and author, said he thought half the Cabinet had gone mad.

'They pop up on the radio saying they would like to be Prime Minister.

'They should be ashamed of themselves. They should stop answering such silly questions.'

Charles Kennedy MP, president of the Liberal Democrats, said: 'Jeffrey Archer is behind the times. The Tory party is already tearing itself apart in this phoney war period in the run-up to the leadership election which is now inevitable.'