Blair's poll position provokes a panic in Conservative ranks

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The Independent Online
THE Conservative party high command yesterday changed its line of attack on Tony Blair, Labour's new leader, amid evidence of Cabinet divisions. The leadership has apparently been thrown into alarm and uncertainty following Mr Blair's easy election victory.

With John Major due this week to mark out the 'clear water' between the Conservatives and Labour, his new party chairman, Jeremy Hanley, said Labour's leader was shackled to commitments to 'more spending, higher taxes and vastly increased state control'. Yet, on Thursday, Mr Hanley said Mr Blair was 'all style and no substance' and 'short on detail'.

Yesterday Mr Blair accused the Tories of being in a 'state of total confusion'.

Tory concern was heightened by a Gallup telephone poll of 752 people in today's Sunday Telegraph in which Mr Blair was backed by 61 per cent as the man who would make the better premier, with Mr Major trailing on 23 per cent. More alarming still, on trust, Mr Blair was rated above Mr Major in every area of policy including tax where the Labour leader scored 55 per cent to the Prime Minister's 26 per cent.

Some Cabinet ministers want to ignore Mr Blair's crusade for the centre ground. Others want to paint him a closet left-winger while they move to the populist right.

One minister said: 'We still don't know whether to argue that he has no policies or to argue his policies are bad ones.'

On Wednesday Mr Major will try to end the internal row at a speech to the European Policy Forum which will flag up differences between the parties. He will argue that the Conservatives are the party which believes in more limited - but better performing - areas of state involvement.

The debate over how to tackle Mr Blair has been simmering for weeks. Right-wingers in the Cabinet, including the Home Secretary Michael Howard, want to portray Mr Blair as a captive of a left-wing party whose policy is at variance with his centrist rhetoric.

Senior Cabinet left-wingers, such as David Hunt, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, believe the Government should concentrate on getting across its success in improving the economy. The Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, is particularly worried about the apparent lack of direction; he fears Mr Blair's appeal to middle-class voters.

The latest row broke out when Mr Hanley issued a statement on resolutions submitted for debate at Labour's conference in Blackpool in October, arguing that they showed Labour to be 'rooted in the past'.

Highlighting calls for cuts in defence spending, calls for renationalisation and demands for repeal of trade union legislation, Mr Hanley added: 'Tony Blair may use the rhetoric of choice, opportunity and renewal - but in reality he remains shackled by a party still committed to more spending, higher taxes and vastly increased state control.'

But Mr Blair, speaking to party workers in Sedgefied, said: 'The Tories . . . can waste as much time as they like taking side-swipes at me but the questions British people want answered are these - When will they take real action to reduce unemployment? What are they going to do to sort out the chaos in the Health Service?'

Tomorrow, in a Fabian Society pamphlet, Mr Blair will rule out any prospect of a pact with the Liberal Democrats. He writes: 'The future will be decided not on the basis of pacts. . . but through the power and energy of our ideas.'

What Blair means, page 4; Hunt profile, page 17; leading article, page 18

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