With many ministerial and backbench colleagues reduced to a grim public silence, the Prime Minister said: 'No, no, I'm not going to reconsider policy on VAT on fuel.
'I spoke a moment ago about the need to get the country's finances in order. That cannot be done without difficult decisions.'
That determination was immediately pounced upon by Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, whose by-election candidate had just scored a stupendous 35 per cent swing in one of the country's most blue-chip Tory constituencies.
'There's been a shout of rage from Christchurch, speaking on behalf of the whole nation,' he said.
'If the Prime Minister ignores that, or treats it with contempt or complacency, which is what he now seems to be doing, he will suffer. But the country will suffer most.'
Diana Maddock, the new MP, said people had voted for her because of their 'total disillusionment' with the Conservatives, adding: 'The Government is drifting rudderless and totally out of touch.'
Labour, which lost its by-election deposit as the protest vote turned to the more potent Liberal Democrat threat, opens a summer campaign on VAT today.
John Smith, the Labour leader, said the result was 'a devastating rejection of John Major and his government - and a crushing condemnation of Tory broken promises on VAT'.
Margaret Beckett, his deputy, urged Mr Major to listen to the voters' message. 'They appear to have voted in huge numbers against the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel which you have introduced despite assurances before the last election that you would not do so,' she said in a letter.
Mrs Beckett also said Christchurch appeared to be protesting about rail privatisation and the closure of small post offices.
'Since one of your post-election promises was that you would in future listen to the people, I call on you now to do so.'
One of the few Conservative backbenchers to enter the fray was Teresa Gorman, of Billericay, who told ITN that if Mr Major did not reverse the VAT decision, 'then he will be committing political suicide because we've got to listen to the people'.
Earlier, she told BBC Radio's Today programme: 'It's like one of those door-to-door brush salesmen. They knock on the door, they show their wares and the householder slams the door in their face.
'If you go around the corner and try to flog the same stuff, you're going to lose your job. You've got to change your product and I hope that's what the Government learn from this.
'Politics is just like a business. You have a range of products the policies and if the people say they don't like what you're offering and they slam the door in your face, you're an idiot if you don't change. And the Prime Minister has the power to do that.'
Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman and the man already being targeted as the fall-guy for government failures and unpopularity, said that no one was complacent and lessons would be learnedlearnt.
'The whole thing about politics is to try to get over the policies that you are carrying out,' he told GMTV.
Later, he told ITN: 'I think that there has been a feeling by the public that we have become remote as a government, perhaps as a party as well.
'But I think what we need to do is to get our message over more directly. That means not just the party, but also ministers getting out into the country, explaining our policies directly, and of course developing the policies which the public feel most strongly on, like law and order.'Reuse content