Christchurch By-Election: Defeat 'will be nail in Major's coffin': Opposition parties focus on the Prime Minister as Conservative leadership becomes key issue

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JOHN MAJOR'S leadership became the key by-election issue yesterday at Christchurch in Dorset as the opposition parties warned that the expected Tory defeat would be a nail in his coffin.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, accused the Prime Minister of failing the country in his handling of the Tory rebels on Maastricht and over Sarajevo.

As Mr Major's remarks about the 'bastards' in his Cabinet continued to reverberate, Mr Ashdown told a press conference: 'Mr Major appears to have made appeasement into an art form. He insults his ministers in private, but backs down to the rebels in public. It is no way to lead the party and no way to lead the country.

'This country cannot go on being led by a government and a party at war with itself. I do not believe that at such a time of important challenges, it is good for the country to be ruled by a Prime Minister whose leadership qualities are defective.'

Mr Ashdown said Mr Major was 'a lame duck who is close to being a dead duck'. He added: 'I like Mr Major. He is probably the decentest (sic) man in Downing Street for 50 years. The question is, does he give a clear lead to our country? And the answer to that is no.'

Margaret Beckett, deputy leader of the Labour Party, whose candidate may lose his deposit tomorrow, said a Conservative defeat in one of the safest Tory seats would hasten the end for Mr Major.

Mrs Beckett denied that Labour would do better if he remained in office. 'John Major is not up to the job of being Prime Minister and the sooner he leaves it, the better it is for Britain. It will bring the day nearer.'

Rob Hayward, the Conservative candidate, admitted that some disgruntled Tory voters had complained about the lack of leadership under Mr Major. But William Waldegrave, the Cabinet minister responsible for public service, said: 'I would love to hear what Paddy Ashdown says about his colleagues.'

He denied that Mr Major was a liability. 'That is nonsense. The Government and the country has had an extremely difficult year and a tremendous sense of disappointment that the upturn was not sustained. There is a great sense of disappointment in every constituency in the land. The Prime Minister and all of us have suffered from that.'

Many of the Tory voters who are threatening to give the Liberal Democrats a landslide, overturning a 23,015 Tory majority, are retired, hold right-wing views on law and order and welfare issues, and have told the Tory campaign team they deeply regret Baroness Thatcher's fall.

In an attempt to appeal to them, the Tory campaign issued a personal letter of support from Lady Thatcher. She had been invited to the constituency to support Mr Hayward, but she had other engagements, said party officials. However, her appeal to voters to support the Tory candidate appears to have come too late to change the result.

Mr Waldegrave said he should qualify as a 'bastard' because his grandmother was illegitimate.

(Photograph omitted)