Labour leader to crush dissent

In an Islington rose garden, Tony Blair reshapes the future of his party
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Tony Blair last night defied criticism of his autocratic style of leadership as he rewrote key sections of the party's draft manifesto on which Labour will fight the general election.

The 10,000-word policy document, being redrafted at his home by Mr Blair, will emphasise the message that new Labour has jettisoned past commitments on tax and spending. The launch on Thursday will focus on law and order, cuts in school class sizes, welfare-to-work plans, health, and the economy.

Mr Blair last week tore up sections of the draft manifesto and decided to re-write it himself because it failed to get across his message over the extent to which Labour had changed. It will reinforce his grip on the party, in spite of the storm he faced in Scotland over devolution.

In another major shift, Labour will signal today it intends to abandon past threats to abolish private beds from the NHS. Instead, Labour will shift the argument towards improving the NHS to make private health care unnecessary. Harriet Harman, Labour's health spokeswoman, will announce plans to release pounds 100m for an extra 100,000 operations on the NHS by cutting the number of managers in the health service after abolishing the NHS "internal market".

Sources close to Mr Blair dismissed threats of resignation by Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs over his U-turn on devolution, and regarded the criticism of the tough leadership style as a bonus, which could play well with voters in "middle England". A senior source said: "He is showing the leadership that John Major lacks."

Mr Blair has calculated that the Scottish Labour MPs who were infuriated by the lack of consultation will accept the dramatic shift in policy with a referendum, and will not resign the party whip to join the SNP. But there were strong signs of a backlash by Scottish Labour critics last night over Mr Blair's plan to put the tax-raising powers of the Scottish parliament to the Scottish voters in a separate referendum question.

One senior Scottish Labour MP said there would be a move to limit the referendum to the single question of whether or not the parliament should be established. Tam Dalyell, the veteran Labour MP who was responsible for causing difficulties in the last attempt to give Scotland devolution, said last night the Commons should decide the powers of the parliament before the referendum was put to the Scottish people. "The only question for the referendum should be: do you support the 1997-98 Scotland Act passed by Parliament?"

The fight-back to guarantee the tax-raising powers of the parliament is likely to be started today by the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention and Scottish Labour MPs at a meeting tomorrow at Westminster.

Long-term plans to reduce the power of the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) being canvassed by Tom Sawyer, the party's general secretary, led to reports that Mr Blair was intending to couple his drive on policy change with a purge of any critics.

His supporters yesterday denied plans for a purge, but made it clear that the NEC did have existing powers to require the loyalty of MPs and candidates in the run-up to the election. "We want to ensure that MPs and candidates do not appear on TV supporting Tory ministers in criticising the party," said one Labour source.

The aim of the changes to the NEC is to ensure that a Labour prime minister and his cabinet would not face a power struggle from the NEC, which could be used as the focus of discontent through trade unions. By stripping it of its policy-making powers, Mr Blair is determined to have a stronger grip on power and his party than any of his predecessors.

A radical change in the Tories' strategy for dealing with Mr Blair will be adopted at a special political meeting of the Cabinet today chaired by Mr Major. The party's advisers have warned that its past attempts to claim that Labour has not "changed its spots" are not believed by the voters.

In an attempt to clarify its attack on Mr Blair, the Tories will adopt a new strategy to warn the voters that with "new Labour" comes "new dangers" such as the break-up of the Union with Scotland and Wales.

But Lord Tebbit, a former chairman of the Tory party, last night said Mr Major should challenge Mr Blair to extend his commitment to referendums to European monetary union. "He has stepped straight into a trap. You cannot say it is such a constitutional change that you have a referendum on devolution and then deny it on things like Maastricht. He has made Jimmy Goldsmith enormously credible."

Leading article, page 13 Frank Field, page 15