Election '97: They're praying for a miracle

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The Independent Online
Floating Tory voters were last night warned by John Major that polling day would be a "day of destiny" and "a Battle for Britain" as he launched an 11th-hour appeal to halt the momentum behind Tony Blair.

The Prime Minister ended his final election rally in London with a warning to the voters of Middle England that tomorrow's vote would be irrevocable - with the nation, its economy, and the bright prospects for the future hanging in the balance.

But with the polls painting the Tories on the brink of defeat, and Mr Major requiring an election miracle, The Independent was told yesterday that the supporters of Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, fear a deal has been hatched between Michael Portillo and John Redwood to run on a twin ticket in the Conservative leadership election after Mr Major stands down.

The Heseltine camp believes that Mr Portillo and Mr Redwood are planning to "carve up" the leadership election together to secure the maximum support of the right wing in a new Parliament, and the suspicions underline the febrile state of morale in the Tory ranks.

That was reflected by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, who in a Sky TV interview warned that the Conservatives should avoid "internecine warfare" if they lost. They should think about winning the next election.

In his last-ditch effort to rescue the Tories from defeat, after 18 years in office, Mr Major last night accused Labour of a triple threat on the economy, Europe and devolution. Reinforcing the message in an election broadcast, he gave a stark warning that Mr Blair was not selling second- hand cars. "It's your job, your savings, your mortgage, your prosperity that's at stake."

Mr Heseltine has ordered his supporters not to engage in any leadership speculation and yesterday continued loyally to support Mr Major's efforts to avert a Labour victory. But he sent out confused signals during the day. At the morning press conference, he appeared to warn that Britain could be marching towards a Labour victory, unaware of what it could mean. "This country is sleepwalking into the sort of disastrous policies Labour in power have always been responsible for," he said. "The best way to avoid sleepwalking into a nightmare is to wake up."

Later, though, Mr Heseltine repeated his long-standing claim: "I have given my view that the Conservatives will win this election and I have even gone as far as to forecast the outcome - a majority of 60." And he added: "I have now come to the conclusion that figure is nudging up as I do more research."

Earlier, Mr Major attempted to distance himself from his own election campaign when he accused interviewers of going "on and on" about Europe to the neglect of other issues - apparently forgetting that he had put Europe at the top of his agenda last month.

It was "fantasy", he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, to suggest that he had given prominence to Europe. But Mr Major chose to upstage the unemployment figures on 16 April with the statement: "There is no doubt in my mind that [the single currency] is the single most important issue that any government has been asked to make for generations."

He went on to replace that night's election broadcast with one in which he explained the Government's "negotiate and decide" policy. The following day, he surprised colleagues with an announcement of a free vote for Tory MPs on a single currency, and the next day the party issued its highly controversial advertisement, showing a puppet Mr Blair on Helmut Kohl's knee with the message: "Labour's position on Europe."

Europe refused to lie down even as the campaign was drawing to a close. Mr Major changed his speech to criticise the Brussels commissioner responsible for monetary union who had said in Washington that the G7 leading industrial nations could, after union, be reduced to a G3 - the United States, Japan and the EU.

Last night, Paddy Ashdown stepped up his campaign with a prediction that the Liberal Democrats could be on the verge of "the greatest breakthrough any third party had achieved since the Second World War".

But Mr Blair told BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat: "I discount all this talk of landslides; it's all rubbish ... The new Labour government will only happen if you come out and vote for it.