Labour and Liberal Democrat strategists said Mr Major had legitimised their tactic of turning the European elections into a referendum on his leadership, leaving the Government open to attack over taxation, unemployment and poverty. 'The Prime Minister has hijacked his own campaign,' said Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat president.
The row over beggars increased the pressure on the Prime Minister to get the Tories off the defensive on the domestic agenda and back on their key European issues as he embarks today on a three-day tour of the regions with a rally in the North-west, before taking his campaign to the East and Midlands.
The Tories counter-attacked by accusing Labour of disarray after Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said a commitment by Jack Straw, the Labour environment spokesman, to restore benefits for 16- and 17-year-olds would have to be funded out of existing budgets.
Tory campaigners said the Prime Minister's attack on beggars had 'struck a chord' with the voters. But it wrecked plans to start the second week of the campaign with an offensive on Labour and the Liberal Democrat commitments to adopt the Social Chapter.
It overshadowed warnings led by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, that those parties would threaten jobs in Britain. David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, was faced with a barrage of questions on beggars as he tried to relaunch the Tory offensive on the Social Chapter.
Showing the frustration among cabinet ministers, Mr Hunt said: 'Let's get back to the truth, if we can concentrate on the real issues . . .'
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, last night attempted to refocus the Conservative campaign on the Tories' three main campaign themes: the risk to the British veto on European legislation, which Mr Major had established as the centrepiece of his European election campaign; support for a multi-speed Europe, which was aimed at reconciling the Europhobes in the Tory party; and the threat to jobs the Tories say is posed by the Social Chapter.
'The more the campaign has been about European questions, the more we have carried the people with us,' Mr Hurd told a Scottish audience.
'It is striking that our opponents are seeking at every turn to divert attention from the European questions with which the campaign should be concerned. We are not going to let them off the hook.'
Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, accused Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, of being in 'full retreat' over the veto.
Dismissing the Tory accusations as a diversion, Labour strategists said Mr Major had played into their hands. They are planning to target their campaign this week on tax, crime, and health alongside European issues. Margaret Beckett, the acting Labour leader, said: 'The Prime Minister himself has brought that into focus. He has made an issue of what kind of country Britain is today, what kind of problems we see, and whose fault they are. He has brought that into the centre of the election campaign.'
Mrs Beckett, touring Leicester, released balloons attacking the Tory tax record. She visited a closed-circuit television centre that has cut crime in Northampton's town centre and toured Watford General Hospital in a day's sweep down the centre of the country, which was fixed firmly on the home front.
Church leaders and the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation joined the storm of protest at the Prime Minister's attack on beggars, alleging government policies were to blame for some of the down-and-outs on the streets in Britain.
Care plan put 'people on street', page 2
European elections, pages 8, 9Reuse content