Gloves off: Blair and Major prepare for the fight

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Tony Blair yesterday attacked the "grotesque nerve" of John Major as the Prime Minister prepared to go to the Palace this morning to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament, at last triggering the election for 1 May.

With gloves off for a six-week campaign that could see the first televised leadership debate, Mr Blair, in an interview with The Independent, accused the Tories of doing a somersault on the need to help Britain's have-nots.

Ministers were braced for a call today to Downing Street that would end the phoney war, and begin one of the longest campaigns of the post-war period, in an attempt to close the record Labour lead. Mr Major is expected to visit a marginal constituency in the London area this week.

Mr Major's attempts to regain the initiative by accepting Mr Blair's challenge of televised debates, after a lacklustre conference in Bath and the launch of the Tory election slogan - "You can be sure of the Conservatives" - became bogged down in a dispute over terms for the debate. Mr Blair said Mr Major was still "mucking around" by refusing to allow Paddy Ashdown to join in. A Blair aide said the Tories were engaged in a scam to make sure a debate did not take place by imposing impossible conditions.

Mr Blair also told The Independent it was "ridiculous" for the Conservatives to blame Labour councils for the failings of a Conservative government; that Baroness Thatcher was right to say he was a British patriot who would defend the national interest in Europe; and that the Tories believed they had a divine right to rule.

"They have a sort of sense of outrage and anger that the Labour Party has finally got its act together and offers a creditable alternative. They think it's very impudent of us," he said.

But his toughest attack was in response to Mr Major's campaign theme, delivered to the Conservative Central Council in Bath on Saturday, that the Conservatives should now turn their attention to helping society's have-nots. Mr Major said: "We are out to make sure that those who don't have, do have. That revolution began years ago. Now it is time to move it into a new phase."

Mr Blair said: "That is nerve of the most grotesque sort, to claim that they are the party to heal the fractured society, when they have spent 18 years creating it - and a large part of that time saying there's no such thing as society at all.

"They are doing it because people believe the Conservatives increasingly represent the few, not the many, and therefore they are desperate to try and salvage some of their credibility on this question. But I think people will say 'Who is best after 18 years in office to heal the divisions of our society - the people who created them or those that have been drawing attention to them?' "

As to yet another reported endorsement for Mr Blair from Lady Thatcher, who is reported to believe that Mr Blair is a patriot who will defend British interests in Europe, the Labour leader said: "I hope that is true. I am a British patriot and I believe that Britain is entirely safe in our hands. But what is important ... is that our attitude to Europe is driven by our genuine national interest, and not by internal party bickering, which is what has happened with the Conservatives."

Although government sources refused to confirm that Mr Major will go to the Palace today, a Labour source said: "Major wants to have his day - he needs the flummery."

There was more woe for Mr Major as West Midlands MPs ignored pleas for unity from Michael Portillo by calling for the Tories to raise the issue of immigration in the campaign and to oppose entry into a single European currency.