Senior Tories believe the mass abstention of Tory voters in Dudley shows that the party's bedrock support has been eroded by the Prime Minister's strategy of consolidation. Pressure will be increased on Mr Major to change course towards more radical right-wing policies, which he rejected in his keynote speech to the party conference in October.
Mr Major's leadership could be at risk if the "feel good factor'' fails to reach the voters in the new year. The Dudley result confirmed the worst fears raised in the recent confidential report by to the Prime Minister by John Maples, the deputy chairmanof the party, that the voters regarded the Government as split, out of touch and guilty of lying over its promises of low taxation.
Sir Rhodes Boyson, the Tory MP for Brent North, led the calls for more right-wing policies by demanding tougher law and order measures, including a return to the death penalty. John Townend, the right-wing chairman of the Tory backbench finance committee, said: "We have got to get back to Conservative policies. We have got to squeeze public expenditure and bring down taxes.''
Mr Major said voters were "unusually volatile" at present and were staging a by-election protest that showed people were still not feeling the full effects of the recovery.
"I think some good can come out of it, providing people realise within the Conservative Party that we are all pulling in the same direction for the same cause at the same time and against the same opponent I believe that will dramatically transform the political environment.
"There is no doubt a great deal is going right economically and in other ways, but the message simply isn't getting through."
Michael Heseltine, who remains a threat for the leadership, has won right-wing support by striving for more radical policies. Many on the right of the party believe Mr Major's failure to give Mr Heseltine his backing for the privatisation of the Royal Mail was a fatal mistake, leaving the Government open to the charge that it had run out of ideas.
Conservative voters in Dudley West repeatedly complained the Government appeared to be directionless.
Labour's vote actually fell by 540 since the 1992 general election, suggesting that although some Tories did transfer, most preferred to stay at home. That was seen by right-wingers as clear evidence that the floating Tory voters can be won back by a radical agenda.
The swing from Conservatives to Labour was the biggest since the Fulham East by-election in 1933. The next biggest in recent years was 21.35 per cent in Mid-Staffordhsire in 1990.
Dudley West Tories are angry with the Government and many say they are not going to be won back. The crumb of comfort for the Government is the low turn out, which leaves hope that many will be brought back with the "feel good'' factor. The battle now will be over how Mr Major wins them back.
George Gardiner, the Tory chairman of the 92 Group of right-wing MPs, said: "Mr Major talked about the need for unity. That's fair enough, but does he mean he is going to go that extra mile to get the rebels back on board. We cannot go on being administered by prime ministerial pique.''Reuse content