Blair backs away from 50p tax rate

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Labour last night appeared to be moving away from a new 50p top rate of tax after Tony Blair launched Labour's election campaign with a promise to the voters that "there is nothing swept under the carpet or concealed" about Labour's tax and spending pledges.

Giving the strongest hint so far that he would ditch plans for a new top rate of tax, the Labour leader used the launch of a pre-election campaign document setting out Labour's five priorities on education, health, jobs, crime and the economy, to defuse the Tories' tax bombshell.

Mr Blair urged John Major, who yesterday flew to India, to stop "faffing about" and call an early general election. "Let it happen. Let's get on with it. Stop all this waiting around."

Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, who wanted a 50p top rate for those earning over pounds 100,000, is planning to set out Labour's tax plans in detail in a series of four speeches in the next few weeks.

It is expected that he will propose changes to thresholds, with more of the low-paid being taken out of tax. Mr Brown will set out his plans on public expenditure on 20 January. He is unlikely to rule out any tax rises which might be necessary after the election, but it appears that Labour will be able to say, like the Tories in 1992, that they have no plans to raise personal taxation.

Mr Blair has been keen to avoid Labour becoming vulnerable to a repeat of the Tory tax "bombshell" from the 1992 election. He has been surprised by the vehemence of some shadow cabinet colleagues who argued for the tax option to be left open. Some fear an incoming Labour government may find it inherits Tory spending figures that do not add up.

Senior Labour sources insisted that final decisions about the top rate had not been taken. But the Labour leader set the tone yesterday by launching a 20-page document, Leading Britain into the Future, giving a cast-iron pledge that Labour's key spending promises would be self-financed.

Flanked by Mr Brown, John Prescott, Robin Cook and Margaret Beckett, Mr Blair said: "The Tory case is if you go through our programme there are all these spending commitments and Labour is being evasive. No. There is not a single spending commitment here anywhere in our proposals that requires increases in personal taxes. So the whole Tory case is a lie."

The Labour leader added: "Nothing in this programme implies rising personal taxation. We can do it within existing spending limits. We can make a difference to education, health and welfare by a different choice of priorities."

Brushing aside the Tories' presidential-style campaign around Mr Major, Mr Blair said: "I don't give a damn about any of that ... It's not about who runs the most presidential-style press conference. It's about what we can do for Britain."

He took a sideswipe at Mr Major's leadership. "In uncertain times, Britain cannot afford an uncertain prime minister. And Britain cannot afford as its government a party incapable of being led."

In his foreword to the document, Mr Blair also rejected the Tory campaign about "new danger" by insisting that Labour had changed. "New Labour's mission is to build a coalition of support for the radical centre that addresses the future and is not stuck in the battles of the past, and can govern in the interests of the many not the few."

Although the language of "coalitions" may alarm Labour traditionalists, Mr Blair told the press conference that he was not negotiating a pact with the Liberal Democrats, with whom Labour has been consulting on a joint package of constitutional reforms. "I have no desire for pacts, deals, fixes or anything else," he said.