Labour leader baits `lame duck' Major

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair, the Labour leader, will raise the temperature of his pre-election campaigning in the New Year by switching tack to accuse the Government of "hanging on by its fingertips" and John Major of being a lame duck premier.

Despite the overwhelming desire of many of his colleagues for an early election, Mr Blair is preparing to dig in for a longer haul, confident that the Tories' reluctance to face the electorate will rebound on them.

The Labour leader told the Independent on Sunday: "I think this is a government hanging on by its fingertips with no purpose other than its own survival."

Mr Blair added: "The public is tired of seeing them lurching from crisis to crisis, deal to deal, day to day, drifting directionless and without leadership."

Senior Labour figures believe the Government may be able to survive more than one vote of confidence. But in doing so, Mr Major will lose any remaining political initiative or ability to set the agenda. If that happens the Prime Minister may gamble on an earlier poll, perhaps in March. One Labour source said: "We win both ways."

As part of the mounting pressure on Mr Major, Labour is expected to move the writ in late January or early February for a poll in Wirral South, the seat left vacant by the death of the Conservative MP Barry Porter in November.

Last Thursday's political Cabinet was shown a new election slogan centring on the economic message, but the date of the general election was not discussed. The assumption in Cabinet is that Mr Major will try to stay in power for as long as practicable in order to allow economic recovery to filter through to voters. Senior Conservative sources admit, however, that contingency plans for an earlier poll are being drawn up.

The Government's precarious position was underlined yesterday when David Evans, Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield, threatened to resign his seat if the local council is allowed to surcharge council taxpayers up to pounds 1,500 to pay off a pounds 38m debt owed to a developer, Slough Estates. His resignation would force a by-election that Labour could expect to win.

Mr Evans, a right-winger, has asked John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, to force the council to sell off housing stock rather than give permission for a massive tax demand. "If the Government allows them to lift the cap on council taxes... I would resign that minute," he said.

The Ulster Unionists will this week distance themselves from the Government by announcing a European Parliament alliance with Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party. It is thought unlikely that the deal will affect votes at Westminster.

Labour last night denied reports that senior shadow ministers had decided not to propose a new higher top rate of income tax. A spokesman said that no decision had been taken.