Tory leadership still at issue as MPs return: Some critics doubt the Prime Minister's wisdom in staking his authority on the mid-term results. Colin Brown reports

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Indy Politics
JOHN MAJOR today faces his first session of Prime Minister's questions since the Tory backbench calls for him to resign.

The Easter recess of Parliament has done nothing to end speculation about his leadership.

It was fuelled by Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party, at the launch of the party's campaign for the local elections being held on 5 May and it is certain to become the key issue in the European elections on 9 June.

A brief appearance yesterday by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, at a reception for the Tory European candidates, was seen by some of those present as being part of the campaign for the Conservative Party leadership, rather than the European elections.

Almost everything that Mr Heseltine does between now and the end of the election campaign will be seen as part of the leadership contest. 'It's like the Grand National. They're off and running,' one Tory supporter said.

Tory MEPs appeared split on whether Mr Major was wise to put his leadership on the line over the elections. 'It was his decision,' said one, who thought it played into Labour's hands.

Others support Mr Major's strategy. One of those commented: 'It was absolutely the right thing do. It will maximise our vote. Our voters will want to come out and give him their support.'

But some at the heart of the campaign have severe doubts about whether the Tories - and Mr Major - will be able to pull it off. 'We did badly under Margaret Thatcher and still managed to hold on to 32 seats. This time, at worst, it could be like Canada.' The Conservatives in Canada were reduced to two seats in their recent elections. If the Tories are reduced to single figures in the European seats they hold, Mr Major will be finished, according to the Tory candidates.

Some bitter Tory MPs are talking about getting the tumbrils rolling before the European elections. But that may prove wildly premature.

The first test for his leadership, the local elections, may not be as bad for the Conservatives and Mr Major as some expect.

The Tories are clearly hoping to pull off a coup by winning back control of Birmingham, which they would claim as a victory equalling the victories in Wandsworth and Westminster, the two Tory flagship boroughs with which Kenneth Baker, the then party chairman, concealed an otherwise bad set of results at the local elections in 1990. A night of net gains for the Tories - as Sir Norman Fowler has predicted - would put off the leadership speculation until the outcome of the European elections was known.

The right wing of the party is rallying around Mr Major's leadership as the best means of halting the bandwagons of the other two main candidates for the leadership, Mr Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, who are still viewed by many on the Thatcherite right as too 'pro-European'. Baroness Thatcher is unlikely to remain silent if Mr Heseltine looks like winning. 'She would have a fit if he got it,' one Cabinet minister said.

Mainstream Tory MPs who want to see Mr Major replaced by Mr Heseltine are still uncertain how to deliver the coup de grace. They vaguely believe Mr Major will be 'done' by the 'men in grey suits' - the officers of the 1922 Committee - informing him he no longer has the support of the backbench. But in his present fighting mood, Mr Major may ignore their advice.

A 'stalking horse' could then be used to challenge the Prime Minister in the annual leadership election in November to force him to leave the field free for a contest by his Cabinet colleagues. The next two months will be the most testing Mr Major has faced since the general election.

Commons: Defence questions. Prime Minister's questions. Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, report.

Lords: Race Relations (Remedies) Bill, Third Reading; Education Bill, Third Reading; Debate on report on Inter-governmental Pillars of the EU; Debate on consultation paper on Access to Local Authority and Housing Association Tenancies.

(Photograph omitted)