Could this be the face of '97 - or just an `untried, inexperienced' dummy?

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister's New Year message to Tory constituencies criticising Tony Blair's Shadow Cabinet as "untried, inexperienced" and "too risky" was attacked by Labour last night as the opening shot of a "dirty war" to "get Blair".

Conservative Party leaders denied they were mounting a smear campaign against the Labour leader to overhaul Labour's massive lead in the polls, but all the signs are that the New Year will see one of the dirtiest battles ever witnessed at a British election.

Conservatives sources told The Independent that the Prime Minister was against personal attacks on Mr Blair but went on to accuse the Labour leader of "hypocrisy" over abortion, saying he opposed it, after voting to preserve a legal right to abortion.

As Cardinal Basil Hume, the Roman Catholic leader in England and Wales, threatened to make abortion an election issue, a ministerial aide, Dr Robert Spink, accused Mr Blair of "breathtaking hypocrisy" on abortion.

Mr Blair is also likely to be accused of hypocrisy over his choice of an "opt-out" school for his son Euan. A Tory source said: "Education is very fruitful territory... We have a new advertising campaign but it is no more negative than the Labour Party's. They showed giants trampling across Britain, and old ladies being strangled. They are just putting the fear of God up people. They cannot claim the high moral ground."

However, John Prescott, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, told The Independent: "Mr Major's New Year's message is the start of a pounds 7m smear campaign to get Blair, financed by sleazy foreign companies to blacken election year 1997." He said it was part of a "dirty war".

In his New Year Message, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader accused the two parties of "competing for office by saying as little of substance as possible - and Britain heading for its least intelligent election ever."

Mr Blair in his own New Year message today will call for an early general election to capitalise on Labour's conviction that the delay in going to the country is paralysing government.

He will reassure Labour supporters that he will take every opportunity to force an election by bringing down the Government in the Commons. "He will take every opportunity to get them out before time. The drift and weak leadership is damaging Britain and he will set out a positive agenda of new Labour policies," said a Labour source.

But Labour is sticking to its strategy of only tabling a "no confidence" motion to bring down the Government when it thinks it can win the Commons vote. Mr Major enters the New Year without a Commons majority for the first time since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, but is still hoping to hold on until an election on 1 May with the help of the Ulster Unionists.

The Prime Minister's message to constituency chairmen clearly signalled that he intends to use the promise of a tough negotiating stance at the European inter- governmental conference in Amsterdam to silence criticism from Euro-sceptic Tory MPs, and portray Mr Blair as a soft touch in Europe.

"I have one overriding principle in my policy towards Europe - to put the British interest first. That is the best policy for Britain and our party," Mr Major said.

"I will firmly resist any policies that would damage Britain's prosperity or result in a significant shift of power to Brussels. If Britain goes federal, Britain will not follow."

If Tony Blair represented Britain in Amsterdam he would surrender the veto, and would "just follow the crowd", Mr Major said.

Setting out his vision of "two futures for Britain", which will be a key theme of the Tory campaign, Mr Major said: "Stability and prosperity or a leap into the unknown - that is the choice."

The Prime Minister focused on the central message in the Tories' election campaign - don't throw it all away - which will be used to counter Labour's most potent weapon, that it is "time for a change". Hailing the successes in the economy, Mr Major highlighted five threats represented by a Labour victory, of higher taxes, prices and mortgages, fewer jobs, and a federal Europe.

A Tory leadership source said: "The campaign will not be aimed at Blair specifically. The Prime Minister feels very strongly about that. We will be campaigning around the issues." A Labour source said: "We utterly reject charges of hypocrisy. Tony has a perfectly clear position on abortion, which is not in any way hypocritical.

"The issue is whether Parliament should use the criminal law to take away the choice from women often facing agonisingly difficult personal decisions. "He doesn't believe the criminal law is the right instrument to take away that choice.

"His voting record is entirely consistent with that."