Tories in Turmoil: Major given 10 months to restore credibility: Whips put best gloss on mood as shell-shocked MPs return to Commons. Colin Brown reports

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JOHN MAJOR was being given until November to restore credibility to his leadership last night by Tory MPs who returned to the Commons shell-shocked by the wave of scandals which have knocked the Government off course.

Mr Major missed Prime Minister's question time, returning late from the Nato summit. He was briefed on the mood among Tory MPs by the Government whips who tried to put the best gloss on it, saying it was 'not hysterical', but 'better than we could have hoped'.

But Tory MPs were clearly downcast, and for Mr Major, the undercurrents around the lobbies at Westminster potentially were more worrying than last autumn, when he faced questions about his leadership in the wake of the splits over the Maastricht treaty.

The latest spate of scandals, which have undermined Mr Major's 'back to basics' campaign, appear to have hardened opinion against his leadership.

Some Thatcherites who resisted pressure to replace him because it would allow Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, into 10 Downing Street, were last night saying they were ready to support Mr Clarke, in November, unless the Prime Minister had recovered his leadership.

They believe Mr Major's credibility has been so badly damaged that they need a strong leader to lift the party out of its difficulties in time for the next election. Some Thatcherites are prepared to support Mr Clarke, in spite of his pro- European views.

'Mr Major will have to do something spectacular in the next few months, or by November there will be shouts for him to go. I have changed my mind about Kenneth Clarke. He is the only one who can lead us out of this mess,' one leading right-winger said.

'There's no immediate challenge to Major because Ken Clarke isn't ready yet. He wants to show he's a success at the Treasury. Then it will be in his hand, if he wants it,' said another right-wing Tory.

Edward Leigh, a former junior minister, who was sacked by Mr Major, was one of the few Tory MPs prepared to publicly raise the question of the leadership. But many privately agreed with him.

Mr Leigh, a Thatcherite, said what was missing was 'the beef' in the 'back-to-basics' campaign. 'That is what leadership is all about . . . There is a widely held perception that he (Mr Major) seems to be governed by today's editorials, or what's in the Central Office opinion polls. What should govern him is his own firm principles. What the party wants to know is what he believes in.'

The Tory MPs had been expected to bustle into the members' lobby on their first day back after their New Year break. But most were in sombre mood and many retreated to the members' tea room to discuss their position.

'I've just been in the tea room and Norman Fowler (Sir Norman, the party chairman) was there. I couldn't face it and left,' said a ministerial aide. 'He's hardly ever in there, so it must be bad.

'The talk is all about battening down the hatches, and not talking to the Press. The feeling is it's gone too far.'

The suicide of Lady Caithness also cast a pall over the mood of members. 'It had been like a farce over David Ashby, but this tragedy has changed that. People feel very bad about it. There is a whiff of McCarthyism about the Commons. MPs are wondering whether they will be next,' one whip said.

The spate of scandals also forced ministers to shelve their plans to go on the offensive. 'It's tighten the safety-belts time, and keep our heads down,' said one minister.

The disappointment at the prospect of having to repair the damage again contributed to the low morale. Conservative MPs had left for the Christmas recess feeling buoyant, having escaped the worst of the Maastricht rows, with hope of economic recovery lifting the party out of the 'hole' which Mr Clarke had admitted it was in.

However, Tory MPs said the spate of scandals, which had forced three members of the Government to resign in a week, had left it back in the hole, having to climb out again.

There was no sign at the start of the debate on the Criminal Justice Bill of Tim Yeo, the former environment minister, whose admission that he had fathered an illegitimate child, had started the slide.

Labour MPs carefully avoided becoming embroiled in a debate about morality. But they quietly relished the discomfort of the Tory MPs over their 'back to basics' theme. 'They have never looked so glum, not even in the worst of the Maastricht days,' one aide said.

But one Tory MP, a woman, found some good to come out of the episode: 'At least no minister will be able to blame the country's ills on single mothers ever again.'.

Mr Ashby, who admitted sharing a bed with a 'close' male friend but denied homosexuality, last night denied reports that he believed his 28-year marriage was over.

The MP for Leicestershire North-West said: 'I was separated from my wife. Because of what happened I went back. Fact: I am living there. Fact: we are talking. What is going to happen next? I don't know.'

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