After a week in which the Government was forced into two more humiliating U-turns - on commemoration of D- Day and backdating of higher council taxes - a growing number of senior Tory MPs are demanding a radical overhaul of the Major administration.
Speculation about an imminent Cabinet reshuffle is fuelled today by Sir Norman Fowler, who makes plain in a television interview that he is to step down from the chairmanship of the Tory Party soon: 'I was brought in to do a particular job, and that job has been done. There will come a time when I would wish to move on.'
The political future of Peter Brooke, the Heritage Secretary, is regarded as limited after the D-Day fiasco, and David Evans, MP for Welwyn Hatfield and a member of the executive of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, voiced disillusion with the present Cabinet.
He advised the Prime Minister: 'Get rid of Brooke, Gummer, Patten and Waldegrave. Put the other 300 names in a hat and pull four out. You couldn't do worse.' Mr Evans coupled this advice to sack John Gummer, the Environment Secretary; John Patten, the Education Secretary, and William Waldegrave, Minister for Public Services, with a pledge of support for Michael Portillo should the Prime Minister be ousted after the Euro-elections in June. 'If he does get dumped, I will go with Portillo,' he said.
Mr Portillo, busily building a leadership base on the party's right with a one-man campaign to revive traditional values, further set out his stall with his speech in Freuchie, Fife, praising the 'quiet majority that pays its taxes, meets its dues and plays its part in the community'. He described 'a world turned upside down' where 'yobbos' were sent on sailing cruises and people capable of work lived on state hand-outs.
Mr Portillo, asked later whether he was staking his claim as a future leader, said: 'I am glad if you think there is nothing wrong with that. But what I like to do in politics is to talk about the ideas as well as what we do, to try and get above the day-to-day crises and to look at where politics is going. Within our party we have some people who are absolutely excellent in present policy. I hope to make a contribution towards looking to the longer term.'
The Opposition was quick to seize on Mr Portillo's latest intervention. The shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, described the Treasury Chief Secretary as the 'unacceptable face of neo-Thatcherism'. Mr Portillo 'should stop accusing the unemployed of being workshy, inadequate and loutish when it is this Government and its ministers that are guilty of these crimes.'
Mr Brown told a Labour Party youth meeting in London that Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and Mr Portillo were 'no longer under Major's orders, but under starter's orders'.
'This Government and this Prime Minister are not so much accident-prone but permanently doomed to failure because they never listen to the British people.
'Out of touch, out of step, out of place . . . and for the good of the nation they must soon be out of office and out of power,' he said.
The bookmakers William Hill yesterday reduced the odds on Mr Portillo becoming the next Tory leader from 8 to 1 to 6 to 1. An NOP poll for the Independent found that only 3 per cent of the population want him to be Prime Minister.Reuse content