The Prime Minister was warned by some of his most senior backbench MPs that the public regarded 'back to basics' as part of a moral crusade, and he should not retreat from it in spite of the recent wave of sex scandals.
The executive of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee made it clear to Mr Major at a 70-minute private meeting in his room at Westminster that they believed his campaign had struck a chord with rank and file supporters. One 1922 officer said: 'It's a simple question of saying what is right and wrong. He should not be afraid of doing that.'
The party old guard were dismayed at Mr Major's apparent prevarication this week when asked to say adultery was wrong.
However, some of Mr Major's most senior Cabinet colleagues are determined to stop the message being confused with a crusade. 'There was unanimous agreement that the Government should press ahead with the 'back to basics' theme and the policies that flow from it,' the Prime Minister's office said. 'There is a moral dimension. It is not a moral crusade.'
The Cabinet overran by more than an hour as ministers seized the opportunity - in spite of signals by Downing Street that it would not be discussed - to thrash out their differences on the theme, which this week led to Labour charges of ministerial hypocrisy. 'There was no acrimony. We agreed to go back to our departments and reinforce the message with practical policies,' said one minister.
Four Cabinet ministers will today attack Labour's allegations. Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary, will lead the counter-blast by Michael Howard, Home Secretary, Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment.
Last night, Kenneth Clarke disclosed the Cabinet had discussed public perception of 'back to basics' as being linked to sexual morality, and had agreed it had nothing to do with sex scandals and morality. The Chancellor said on BBC 1's Question Time that the campaign was 'about material well-being, a decent quality of life and a society where people behaved decently towards each other'.
The turmoil caused by the sex scandals drew Tory backbench MPs to pack a committee room when officials reported back on the meeting with Mr Major. Sir Marcus Fox, chairman, said: 'The 1922 executive has had a most constructive meeting with the Prime Minister and whole- heartedly and unanimously supports the policy of back to basic values as expounded by the Prime Minister.'
Labour continues to command a convincing lead over the Tories, but both show a fall in support in today's Daily Telegraph/Gallup survey, which shows: Lab 46.5 per cent (December: 48.5), Cons 25.5 (27), Liberal Democrats 20.5 (20), others 7.5 (4.5).
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