Parliament and Politics: Major fails to dispel backbench malaise: Colin Brown finds Tory party members in a state of confusion in the wake of the Prime Minister's Independent interview

Click to follow
Indy Politics
JOHN MAJOR'S commitment to reviving British manufacturing was seen yesterday as the sort of tonic Tory MPs needed. But the effect is likely to be shortlived.

Sir Marcus Fox, who as chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs is the mouthpiece for backbenchers, welcomed the additional emphasis given to manufacturing by Mr Major in the Independent yesterday.

However, it left many Tories, including Cabinet colleagues, confused. 'I thought our line was that there was nothing wrong in service jobs . . .' one Cabinet colleague said. 'I'm sure it's what he meant to say.'

The grumbling about a lack of leadership this week had extended right across the Conservative backbenches, from the new intake to the oldest grandees of the Tory shires. One executive member of the 1922 Committee said: 'I've had colleagues asking me, 'Will he last?' I said: 'Probably'. But that's mainly because there are no other candidates. I don't think I've seen the party in this sort of mood before. It's confused. It doesn't know where it's going. It's looking for leadership.'

Baroness Thatcher is seen as a disruptive influence, even by her former supporters. 'She has dinner with Lilley, Portillo and Michael Howard (the Secretary of State for Environment). It looks as though she is trying to form a government in exile. She must know it's undermining the Government. Some of us think she is right about Maastricht. There is drift, a lack of leadership, but she is making the whole thing worse, and the Tory party doesn't like it.' Graham Bright, the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, is widely criticised by backbench Tories for failing to do more about the backbench grumbling over the Prime Minister. But so were his predecessors, who, with the exception of the late Ian Gow, are judged to have failed Baroness Thatcher.

The message is clearly getting to Number 10 Downing Street. Mr Major pepped up his performance at Prime Minister's Question Time on Tuesday, acerbically dealing short, sharp shocks to Opposition MPs in a manner that carried echoes of the Thatcher handbagging sessions.

The sense of malaise on Tory backbenches is attributed by many to the rows over Maastricht and the economy.

A Cabinet minister said: 'It's the recession, the recession, the recession.' That discontent lay behind the bloodletting at last week's regular meeting of the Tory 1922 Committee, when five executive members, who had joined in the criticism of the Government over Maastricht, were told to consider their own positions. They included George Gardiner, chairman of the 92 group of Thatcherite Tory MPs, who went to the regular meeting last night ready to fight his ground. But no mention was made of the previous week's lynching mood. 'The mood is just to soldier on,' an anti-Maastricht ringleader said. 'We're waiting for the Budget.' The Budget is likely to be austere. But it will be a familiar flag around which Tories can rally.

Andrew Marr, page 21

(Photograph omitted)