Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, reinforced Lady Thatcher's backing for Mr Major. But their support backfired with Tory MPs on the opposite wing of the party.
'It's pretty clear she woke up on Monday and suddenly realised that Ken Clarke was going to take over from John if she didn't do something,' said a ministerial source. 'It's just a 'Stop Ken' campaign.
'We're pretty annoyed that it just makes her look like the back-seat driver again.'
Lord Archer, who is close to Lady Thatcher and Mr Major, insisted that her support for the Prime Minister was unequivocal. However, her suggestion that the threat of a challenge this year was 'ill-timed' left open the possibility that unless the party's fortunes have improved, the challenge will come next year. That view is openly canvassed by some right-wingers.
John Carlisle, the Tory MP for Luton North, said the Prime Minister had until the end of the year to improve his position. One former party leader shared the view that Mr Major had up to a year, but said: 'I don't think this is the time or the season for a challenge.
'The party needs time to bed down now. You cannot go on changing your leader when their style is out of fashion.
'Margaret was too strident, and now we have a more emollient Prime Minister, you can't just get rid of him.'
MPs on the left of the Tory Party are also annoyed at the intervention of the Thatcherite 92 Group in warning the Chancellor not to increase taxes. 'Who are they to tell us there should be no tax increases? They are a faction, and a small one at that,' one ministerial aide said.
Sir Norman Fowler, the chairman of the party, who was targeted for attack by some members of the 92 Group at their meeting on Monday night, has advised Mr Major to weather the storm by remaining resolute and demonstrating that he is sticking to his strategy.
Tory leaders are also advising Mr Major that he should take his campaign out into the country, following the success of his general election 'soapbox' campaign, with a series of informal meetings.Reuse content