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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

John Major Resigns to Force Leadership Vote

LONDON -- Daring his right-wing critics to "put up or shut up,'' Prime Minister John Major resigned as Conservative Party leader Thursday to force an early leadership election.

Despite his record low standing in opinion polls, Major said he would seek re-election and expected to win. If he didn't win, he said he would step down as prime minister.

Members of his cabinet quickly announced their support for Major.

If a challenger steps forward, the 329 Conservative Party members of the House of Commons would vote July 4, the party announced.

The announcement by Major, 52, followed increasing opposition and insults from right-wing rebels within the party opposed to Britain's closer integration with the European Union.

Recently Major also endured new sniping from Margaret Thatcher, the leader he replaced five years ago.

On Thursday, she described Major's choice of action as a bold move and said, "it will clear the air. I believe the prime minister will be re-elected and by this move he will have strengthened authority.''

Tony Blair, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Major "has now accepted that the Conservative Party is unfit to govern.''

For the past three years, Major said, "there have been repeated threats of a leadership election. In each year, they turned out to be phony threats.

"Now the same thing is happening again in 1995. It is in no one's interest that this continues until November. It undermines the government, and damages the Conservative Party.

"I am not prepared to see the party I care for laid out on the rack like this any longer.''

Speaking at a news conference in the garden of his official residence at No. 10 Downing St., Major said he was unwilling to endure months of speculation about a possible challenge in November, when party rules provide for an election.

"In short, it is time to put up or shut up,'' Major said.

Major walked away after reading his statement, and took no questions.

"I hope .... that a candidate will come forward to challenge,'' said Teresa Gorman, who was expelled from the Conservative caucus in the Commons earlier this year for voting against the government.

Mrs. Gorman did not say whether she would be a candidate.

Any challenger would have until Thursday to muster signatures from 33 Tory lawmakers to qualify as a candidate. If one or more candidates stand against Major, the election would be held July 4, the party announced.

The Conservative Party has governed Britain since 1979, when Thatcher won the first of her three national election victories.

Major was a surprise winner of the leadership election forced by Thatcher's opponents in November 1990. She fell short of the needed majority in the first round and resigned, and Major won the party leadership on the second ballot.

Trade Secretary Michael Heseltine, who stood against Thatcher in the first round of the 1990 contest, declared his support for Major. r," Heseltine said. "I shall support him."

Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, Education Secretary Gillian Shepherd and Cabinet Minister David Hunt also weighed in behind Major.

Lord Norman Tebbit, an old ally of Lady Thatcher and a frequent critic of Major's government, said the prime minister was likely to win re-election. "I think John Major has probably taken the best tactical opportunity that he can to force the issue, get it over, and I think with a clear wind behind him nobody's going to challenge him in November," Tebbit said.

Sept. 1992. Black Wednesday: Major pulls Britain out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism as pound collapses.

Nov. 1992. Euroskeptic rebels from Major's own party almost succeed in bringing down the government with a vote on the Maastricht Treaty.

May 1993. Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont is sacked after a series of embarrassing gaffes.

Jan./Feb. 1994. Three government members are forced to resign in sexual or corruption scandals. Another MP is found dead clad only in women's stockings.

May/June 1994. Local elections and European elections hand Conservatives heavy defeats.

Nov. 1994. Eight Conservative MPs expelled as punishment for voting against the government on European issue. A ninth quit in protest. Government becomes a technical minority in Parliament.

April/May 1995. Conservatives

are handed a drubbing in local elections. (Reuters)