Election '97: So today is freedom day

The English People believes itself to be free: it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of MPs; as soon as the Members are elected the people is enslaved. J J ROUSSEAU
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The Independent Online
The country's political leaders last night handed the election over to the people, with appeals for their support in a ballot that will either return Tony Blair, at 43, as the youngest Prime Minister for a century, or give John Major the first fifth term since 1828.

Mr Major repeated his warning that change was dangerous, saying: "I understand why some people may find the argument for change attractive. Eighteen years is a long time, the electorate know us, warts and all. And it's easy to overlook the achievements.

"But if you're one of the many who have still to make up your minds, with all the force I possess, I say don't fall for it. Don't be taken in. One cross in the wrong place on the ballot paper tomorrow could wreck everything we have achieved together."

At his morning press conference, the Conservative leader said nine times: "It's too good to give up", adding: "In one careless moment, don't throw our success away."

But with the opinion polls repeating their forecast of a landslide Labour victory, Mr Blair was maintaining his insistence that nothing could be taken for granted. He said he wanted to rebuild the voters' trust by offering a 10-point contract, includ- ing central pledges on tax, education, health, crime, sleaze, and Europe.

He told The Independent: "The very reason we have this contract with the British people is precisely so that we can try and rebuild the trust.

"One of the most frustrating things for us, since we've been in opposition for 18 years is that people say that all the politicians are all the same. Whatever we vote, it doesn't make any difference.

"It's not the case that we can't make any difference. The promises that we have made are specific, they are limited, I often point out they are limited, but they are specific, and if we deliver on those then I think we are entitled to trust."

However, Mr Blair then added: "If we don't deliver on those, then we won't be."

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, released a letter to two million floating voters in which he trumped his earlier claim that his party was on the verge of a major breakthrough.

It said the Liberal Democrats stood "on the threshold of an historic victory ... The only vote that will make a difference for you and your family's future is a vote for the Liberal Democrats."

The messages were reiterated during the day as the leaders barnstormed around the country, with Mr Major at one point being barracked by Labour supporters during a walk-about in Stevenage, a Labour target.

Mr Blair said in an impromptu speech at Stockton market, another Labour target: "You either wake up on Friday 2 May with another five years of the most discredited and sleazy government. If you don't want that, come out and support us tomor-row and end up with a new Labour government and a better future for Britain."

But Mr Blair's biggest problem was holding down all triumphalist talk of victory, and the action that would flow from his election tomorrow.

Against that background, senior Labour sources dismissed speculation about Mr Blair's plans for Cabinet-making, something he would turn to tomorrow, in the event of victory.

However, suggestions of a large-scale purge of traditionalist, old Labour frontbenchers were being heavily discounted by well-informed sources yesterday. The Independent was told that there would be no "bloodbath".

While there are 27 members of the shadow cabinet and only 22 paid Cabinet places available, it would not be possible for Mr Blair to give all his shadow cabinet team full Cabinet rank, but one source said that while some would inevitably be disappointed, Mr Blair would want to have a good mix of people in his administration.

The source said that contrary to some speculation, Mr Blair was well pleased with his frontbench team, which took account of the balance of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He would want to continue with that balance in government.

But the top jobs have already been marked out for John Prescott, the deputy who has delivered such stalwart efforts in a countrywide campaign; Gordon Brown, shadow Chancellor and head of the Millbank headquarters campaign team; Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary; David Blunkett, shadow Education Secretary; Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, and Margaret Beckett, who is currently serving as shadow Trade and Industry Secretary.

In the event of a Labour victory, speculation will also be prompted about the new prime minister's attitude towards the Civil Service.

It is expected that Mr Blair would want to appoint Jonathan Powell, a former diplomat and his current chief of staff, as his principal private secretary - a post which was once held by his brother, Charles, in Margaret Thatcher's office.There is also certain to be strong speculation about the successor to Sir Robin Butler, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service, the most senior mandarin in the country, who is due to retire at the start of next year.