Blair expects Heseltine victory but hopes for 'bloodied' Major

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has been reported twice this year as "putting his party on a war footing" for a snap general election this autumn against a Tory party led by Mr Heseltine.

"We still expect it to be Heseltine," a spokesman for Mr Blair said yesterday. "But we've done a lot of research on him since then, and people do see him as unreliable and they see him as yesterday's man."

In contrast to the party atmosphere at Westminster among Labour backbenchers, the spokesman admitted that Mr Blair felt "a mild sense of frustration that, for the first time since he became leader, he is not setting the agenda".

The Labour leader's advisers are aware that the change of Tory leader in 1990 drove the Labour Party off the front pages and allowed John Major to present himself as someone who could unite the country.

"We have got to remain visible - last time, the Labour Party just disappeared," the spokesman said. "If a new leader arrives, we have got to make sure that he is seen not as a renewal, but as further evidence of their terminal decline. We are going to remained focused right through this on the divisions in the Tory party."

The best outcome for the Opposition, according to the spokesman, would be a win for a "bloodied John Major".

He dismissed the idea that Mr Blair would privately be backing John Redwood, the former Secretary of State for Wales: "Redwood, of all them, could just about get away with presenting himself as 'change'. "

Labour has also conducted research into public attitudes towards Michael Portillo, the undeclared candidate of the Tory right, which is said to contradict the findings of research carried out by the BBC for last week's Panorama profile of him. The Panorama research, carried out by Frank Luntz, an adviser to the new-right Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, found that floating voters were "won over", when they were exposed to him.

Labour's research among former Tories who now intend to vote Labour is said to have discovered that Mr Portillo evokes "really strong, almost physical reactions" against him.

Labour is also tracking public opinion throughout the Tory leadership election. A source said: "The people are saying two things: 'Who is running the country?' and 'What the hell is going on?' "