Prime Minister John Major insisted Friday that he will not resign after the ruling Conservative government suffered a thrashing in local council elections across Britain.
In a statement outside No. 10 Downing Street, Major replied to critics who would dispute his leadership: "If anybody chooses to engage in that fight, they will find me standing there waiting for them. I will meet a challenge whenever it comes."
The nationwide defeat of Conservative candidates in Thursday's elections--conducted at the city and county levels--was the worst in modern times, with the Tories winning 27% of the total vote and suffering a net loss of 400 local seats.
While the elections were clearly influenced by purely parochial concerns, politicians agreed Friday that voters had also expressed grave dissatisfaction with the Conservative government, which has been plagued by recession, higher taxes and a sense of a lack of strong political direction. The main opposition Labor Party won 41% of votes cast, while the Liberal Democrats climbed to 28%.
Labor Party leader John Smith called the vote "the best result in local government in our history." Liberal leaders were equally jubilant.
Political observers said the balloting was a reflection of the Conservative government's unpopularity and Major's inability to project himself as a strong national leader. But analysts also noted that the government in power invariably loses votes in midterm elections, and the government need not necessarily call national elections for three more years.
Major predicted that the Tories will rally long before then, saying: "The Conservative Party that I care about is a good deal bigger than any election setback. We must now pick ourselves up and fight back. And that is precisely what I intend to do."
But John Carlisle, a Conservative member of Parliament, called for Major's resignation on Friday and threatened to mount a challenge to his leadership this autumn. Carlisle is not considered a serious challenger, but the mere fact that he would oppose the prime minister is viewed as a reflection of the disarray and vulnerability of the ruling party.
A similar challenge in 1990 to Margaret Thatcher's party leadership resulted in her forced resignation--which led to Major's ascension as prime minister. He won a national election in his own right in 1992.