Blair denies using jobs to boost poll campaign

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TONY BLAIR denied yesterday he was using job announcements to help the Labour Party in the campaign for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

The Prime Minister was in Scotland on his first foray of the election campaign and began his day by paying a visit to the Lanarkshire Development Agency, where 1,000 new jobs with the US investment bank Morgan Stanley Dean Witter had been announced just before he arrived. Mr Blair said: "The timing is actually in the company's hands and rather than criticising the announcement of 1,000 jobs over five years, I would have thought our opponents should be welcoming this.

"This is a great piece of news for Scotland and it is a tremendous investment."

Mr Blair went on to praise the Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar, and said that Labour's campaign for the elections to the Scottish Parliament was going extremely well. "We do have the right programme for the future of Scotland and we have, in Donald Dewar, easily the most trustworthy and talented politician to lead Scotland."

Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, was on the political rack, meanwhile, as his party watered down its commitment to independence and higher taxes for the better-off. Mr Salmond refused to confirm his party's long-standing policy of imposing a top rate tax of 50p in the pound and the abolition of the ceiling on National Insurance contributions. Scotland's "first general election", as the SNP has billed it, is already proving a strain for the party's small political organisation and it is suspected that recent private polling may not have been encouraging.

Mr Salmond has alarmed some party members with his gambles of an extra penny on income tax and condemning Nato bombing in Yugoslavia.

The SNP's manifesto offered a "bridge to independence" through its promise of a referendum on the issue within the first four years of the Scottish Parliament, Mr Salmond said. But he insisted that the detail of what the SNP would do after independence was not an issue for the 6 May poll.

Ironically, while Mr Salmond was playing down independence, a report by economists for the Edinburgh-based David Hume Institute said a move from devolution to outright independence could improve economic performance. The economists warned, however, that Scotland was unlikely to meet the criteria for joining the European single currency - one of Mr Salmond's key aims - without tight control of public spending or higher taxes.

The Scottish Tory manifesto, which was also published yesterday, opens with an apology from the leader, David McLetchie, on how the party "got it wrong" at the May 1997 general election - when not a single Conservative MP survived north of the border. "Our decisions and policies had `London' stamped all over them, with little relevance, or sympathy, for the needs of the Scottish people," he said.

The new "Tartan Tories" promise no more new taxes, the abolition of university tuition fees, "modern matrons" in hospitals and - in common with the SNP and the Liberal Democrats - a lifting of the beef-on-the-bone ban in Scotland.