The scandals and political turmoil have overshadowed his attendance at one of the most important meetings of the post-Cold War period, the Nato summit in Brussels. Downing Street officials tried to steer away from the issue throughout the two-day meeting, but yesterday Mr Major made a clear effort to re-establish his authority before he returned to London.
'Back to basics' was much broader than questions of private morality, he said at a post-summit press conference. 'The 'back to basics' policy, as I've spelt out time and time again, runs right the way across the whole thread of government activities.'
It was about economics, he said, pointing to the UK recovery of evidence of Government success. It was about law and order, including the Criminal Justice Bill, which is having its Second Reading. It was about education, adoption law, housing policy and a wide range of other areas. The key point about the idea was that it represented 'good basic solid common sense'. The Government would press ahead with the policy, he said. 'We will pursue it because it's right, we will pursue it because it's neccessary. I think the very warm initial reception that it had will be maintained into the future.'
He again rejected the idea that the policy was about private morality, and attacked those who have used the revelations of the last few weeks as ammunition in a moral crusade. 'Of course it is about good standards and good values, of course it is about that. What it is not is a witch-hunt against individual transgressions.
'Of course we want good standards and good values right the way across not just the public service but elsewhere, but it is not our job as politicians to preach about that.'
Mr Major tried to appear philosophical about comments from Cabinet colleagues that things had never been worse. 'Times are difficult from time to time, subsequently they get easier. I don't believe the remarks about crisis.' But earlier yesterday he was bluntly warned from his own back benches that if mistakes continued to be made, the Tory mumblings for a change of leadership could become shouts by the autumn.
Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle), sacked as a Trade and Industry minister last May, and John Carlisle (Luton North) spoke out on the BBC Radio 4 programme The World at One. He said the Government was not giving clear, decisive, principled leadership. 'We are not articulating clear policies and, when the going gets tough, sticking with them.' What was missing was 'the beef - that is what leadership is all about'. Mr Carlisle, a long- term critic of Mr Major, said he feared the Prime Minster was vulnerable again. 'He must understand that if at every beck and call things seem to go wrong, and if at every twist and turn there are mistakes made and he does not seem on top of his job, people are going to question his competence as to whether he is the right man to lead the party and lead the country.'
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