Election '97 : Prime Minister goes on offensive over schooling

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The Independent Online
Labour's education manifesto was attacked as a "shameless contract with hypocrisy" by the Prime Minister in an attempt to maintain the Tory momentum in the election.

Mr Major accused Tony Blair of taking a "patronising view" of poorer children who would be stopped from benefiting from the educational reforms which the Labour leader had taken advantage of for his own son, Euan. The personalised attack on Mr Blair's choice of a grant-maintained school outside Islington, his Labour-controlled London home borough, was made in spite of Mr Major's claims that he was not indulging in personal abuse.

Speaking in Plymouth, Mr Major said there was a "giant gulf" between the cosy facade of the Labour Party and the spiteful reality of its policies.

Mr Blair had produced worthy sentiments but had "opposed, opposed, opposed" Tory education reforms. He was like the man who had thrown a brick through a window and turned up offering to act as a glazier.

Mr Blair had said he wanted the same choice for others as he wanted for his own children, the Prime Minister said, yet Labour had pledged to abolish grant-maintained status.

Conservative strategists believe the attacks on Mr Blair's alleged hypocrisy are striking a chord with key floating voters in the Tory marginal seats.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, said that she could not resist "a wry smile" at Labour's conversion to the cause of specialist schools. The party was "shot through" with hypocrisy, she claimed. "You can't spend 18 years opposing all the things we have put in place to improve standards and then say that you want to raise standards." At least three-quarters of Labour's 21 points "towards a better educated Britain" were quite redundant because they were already happening, she added.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, welcomed the Tory and Labour leaders' pledges to put education first, but told ITN's lunchtime news: "Unless they are prepared to put the money in, those are merely words and words come cheap."

Labour's pledge to provide a nursery place for every four-year-old was already well on the way to being fulfilled, Mr Ashdown said. "What we need is nurseries for three- to five-year-olds. That can't be done without making a commitment of resources on that and they refuse to do so."